Invitation Accepted

Chapter One

Gareth stuck his head around his boss’s door. “I’m off now to drop the post off,” he said.

Luke grunted. “See you tomorrow.”

Gareth swiped his key card, shrugged on his jacket and picked up the bundle of outgoing post. If he got a move on, he’d make the box before the last collection. He tried to find the motivation to pick up his pace. The day had been deadly dull, his boss had been in a foul mood and he owed a duty call to his mother. It took all his will power to quicken his pace. He slowed once he shoved the letters in the box and trudged towards his car. Leeds was supposed to be a bustling city, but his tiny studio flat on the edge of Yeadon and the obscure cloth mill on the edge of Horsforth where he worked seemed far from the glamour of the city centre.

Still he had the notebook waiting for him. His mother had extracted a promise that he would leave the flat on Sunday and he had ended up at the car boot sale at the airport. The weather had been grim and the place had been almost empty.

“You look like you need these, mate,” a stallholder had called.

Gareth had managed a weak smile as he saw the bundle of self help books. But for once there wasn’t mockery in the man’s eyes. Instead there was sympathy. “How much are they?” he asked.

The man had looked at the tag on the bundle. “It says £3 on the ticket, but you look like you need a break. It’s yours for a quid.”

Gareth had handed over £1 and lugged the half dozen books back to his car. He’d meant to look at them straight away, but he had got caught up in a phone call from his mother that had lasted for over an hour and left him so mentally exhausted that he had been fit for nothing more than mindless internet browsing. That was yesterday. Now he had the evening to check it all out.

Gareth’s mind was so brimming over the next morning that he walked into the break room without realising that the lads from sales were there. Automatically he shrank into himself and pulled a mug from the cupboard. He knew that they were a good bunch, but they were so overwhelming. Gareth carefully avoided looking at them as he dropped a teabag into his mug.

“…and then she said, ‘I’m going to need more than a packet of crisps if you want me to do that.’ And she walked out!” Syed said, laughing. “And the lass behind the bar said she’d charge me double if I mentioned it again.”

“Excuse me,” Gareth murmured as he pushed his way to the kettle.

“Morning, Gareth,” Syed said cheerfully. “I was just talking about what happened on Friday. You would have laughed yourself sick.”

“You’re going to get into trouble one day,” said Jed. “Mind you, I’ll never forget the look on her face.”

Gareth nodded at the two salesmen and topped up his tea with milk before escaping to his corner in the office. Perhaps that was a warrior spirit, like the booklet talked about. That’s what he had to do, summon a warrior spirit. They were certainly a lot more outgoing than him.

His mind was still full the next day. The symbols were hard work. There wasn’t anything quite like them on the internet. He hardly noticed sorting the post and handing out the orders, his mind was still tussling with the conundrums in the notebook. Luke noticed, though.

“You can’t be sitting around daydreaming, lad,” the boss boomed. “Have you finally got yourself a girlfriend?”

Gareth couldn’t stop the colour rising in his face, but he shook his head. “I could go into the archives,” he said. “They are all over the place.”

“You’re not wrong,” Luke said. “But I want you to help Carli. She’s setting up her office so you can help her carry stuff.” He looked at Gareth’s slight frame. “And you can ask the lads in the warehouse for a hand if they’ve finished the post.”

“Yes, I’m happy to help,” Gareth said. “It’s the old dyer’s clerk office, isn’t it?”

Luke nodded. “It’s been cleaned up, but it’s a mess. And show her the archive afterwards. No funny business, mind,” he added. “Be respectful.”

“Of course,” Gareth said, keeping his face blank.

Carli was the new designer that had just joined the company. Shock had rippled through the company, but everyone knew that it was overdue. Ossett & Co had been on this site since 1843, when Lukes great-great-great-great-great grandfather had bought one of the new-fangled steam engines to power a factory. It had been supplying reliable, competitively priced knitwear ever since. The current best sellers had been designed some time before Gareth’s mother had been born, but with times getting hard, Luke had decided to take a risk. Now they had a designer.

“Those pattern cards need to go on the shelves in the exact order,” Carli said. “If you get on with them, I’ll work on the shade cards.”

Gareth nodded and started unloading the boxes. “Is this the list that I follow?” he asked.

Carli nodded. “Please don’t mess it up. Those things are in that order for a reason.”

Gareth glanced over the list and then checked the boxes. When Luke told the staff that there would be a designer, they had been expecting someone with wild hair and big earrings. Gareth glanced over briefly and noticed that, despite her business suit and her dark hair neatly bobbed, she was a lot younger than she had first appeared. He mentally filed that information away before slotting the pattern cards onto the shelves. It was mindless work and left plenty of time for him to consider the meanings in the notebook.

By the end of the week, Gareth had, he thought, worked out the notebook. It was a ritual of sorts to summon up a warrior like spirit into someone. That’s what he needed, to get out of this dead end job and the dead end corner of Leeds. He picked up the last bundle of post and headed for the door, when Luke called him into his office. “Are you okay, mate?” he asked.

Gareth had been thinking about the meaning of the second set of symbols he had copied out last night. “Hmm? Yes, Luke, I’m fine, thanks,” he said.

Luke frowned. “You’ve not been yourself this week,” he said. “I can’t complain about your work, it’s been spot on, and I’ve never seen your desk so clear. Carli said that you’d been a real help as well and I know that you’ve helped out in the warehouse, but you’ve not really been with us.”

“I’ve just had something on my mind,” Gareth said.

“Is your mum okay?” Luke asked, shuffling some of the invoices scattered across his desk.

“Yes, she’s fine,” Gareth said. “Listen, I’d better get a move on or I’ll miss the post.”

“Okay,” Luke tried a smile and almost managed it. “But let me know if there’s anything wrong. You know you can come to me – any time.”

“Thanks, Luke.” Gareth tried to look grateful as he backed out of Luke’s office. He caught sight of his desk as he strode out of the office and into the small car park. He hadn’t really thought about work at all but slid through the week on autopilot. Gareth dismissed the thought as he dropped the post into the box and got into his car. Tonight he was going to try something out. He’d got everything stashed in the boot. Now he had to see what happened.

Gareth drove up to Otley Chevin and headed for the Surprise View. It was after six now, and the sun was getting low. Dog walkers were sticking to the lower paths as the light faded and the late September wind was cold. Gareth barely noticed it as he strode up the steep trail and onto the rocky outcrop. There were still a few people around so he worked his way west along the ridge and found a small dip in the ground. Oblivious to the magnificent view, he ducked into the shelter of a large boulder out of sight of the main path and unobserved. He pulled some charcoal out of his back pack and a small packet of red ochre. He glanced around and pulled out his notebook. It was cheap and spiral bound but it held his notes and a quick set of prompts for this evening.

Gareth looked around again. He wasn’t going to risk standing up and shouting all this stuff, not where any dog walker could hear him. But he muttered the words and traced the symbols in charcoal and red ochre on the gritty rock in front of him, and he painted the red ochre mixed with cooking oil onto his arms, tracing the symbols there instead of on his face. Then he sat back. The last of the light was draining out of the grey sky and he watched the houses and streetlights spark into life across the wide valley in front of him. Nothing happened. Perhaps he should have taken this a little more seriously. He could have picked up some olive oil from the supermarket yesterday and found somewhere a little quieter so he could stand up and paint stuff on his face. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to summon the spirit of a warrior into himself. Gareth carefully washed the rock with water from his bottle and, pulling his thin hoodie around him, trudged back to the car.

Back at the flat, Gareth went over the notebooks again. He could see so many places where he went wrong. This might be harder than he thought, but he was not giving up. Getting a warrior spirit could only be a good start, and of course it would need effort. That was always the way. The more effort you put in, the more rewards you got out. It made sense. An alarm went off on his phone. Time to ring his mum.

Gareth listened dutifully to his mother as she covered the issues with the neighbours and the difficulties with his stepdad, but after half an hour he broke into the monologue. “I’m sorry, mum, but I have to go. I’ve something for work to finish up. Give my love to Matt,” he said.

“Oh sweetheart! You called him by his name! We’re going to have to meet up soon. We can come up and have a nice meal. It will be marvellous,” his mum exclaimed.

Gareth couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting across from his mother’s relentless chattering and his stepdad’s helpless silence. “Great. I’ll call soon. Love you.” And he hung up. He paused and looked at his phone. Maybe he was getting a little spirit just reading the notebooks. He put his phone away. It didn’t matter. He was starving and the pasta he had planned didn’t appeal. He really craved a burger, with extra fries and double cheese. He grabbed his keys. The pizza shop down the road sold quarter pound burgers, and he could ask for an extra patty.

It was dark now, but the streetlights kept everything bright, throwing immaculately sharp shadows across Gareth’s path as he strode briskly to the run down arcade. He was famished, really hungry. Perhaps he could get some onion rings as well. Then he saw them. A group of young lads, hoods pulled over their faces, hanging around with a sullen, restless energy. He knew what they were like. They caused trouble and he was going to have to run the gauntlet getting past them if he wanted the burger. Gareth weighed up his options. If he turned and walked back, there was a good chance that they would chase him. If he just kept his head, kept his pace and got the burger, he should be okay. At least, he would probably be okay. He kept his eyes down and his hands out of his pockets. That was the trick – don’t make eye contact and keep an even step.

Gareth drew nearer to the lads and he felt sick. They had seen him and they were bored. He was a skinny, 21 year old in a thin hoodie and thinner office trousers. He was a target. How much worse would it be if he ran? He forced himself forward. He wanted a warrior spirit. Now he could start earning it. He could hear them muttering and calling, but he didn’t look up, he didn’t dare. He was at the pizza shop and almost past them, when one of them shoved him hard in the back, sending him staggering wildly forward. Then everything went black.

Gareth rolled over and groaned. He ached. What the hell had happened? He threw back the covers and pushed himself out of bed. He couldn’t remember a thing. He must have had a kicking. He rubbed sore hands over his face and staggered to his tiny bathroom. His arms and legs ached and his hands throbbed. He turned on the cold tap and ran his hands under the cool water. He felt sick as he saw how red and swollen his knuckles were as they stung in the water. What had they done to him? With a jolt he realised that he had gone to bed naked, but as he craned his neck in the mirror and checked himself out, he couldn’t see bruises that would account for the aches. Maybe they had got hold of a taser. He had a couple of bruises on his forearms, with a long, shallow slash, and there were a couple of bruises on his shins, but nothing to explain the deep ache in his muscles. He climbed into the shower and turned the temperature up.

He took his time in there before grabbing a dressing gown and heading for the kitchen living room. He was ready for breakfast, despite the unaccustomed ache in his stomach muscles, and he needed coffee. He paused in the doorway. Scattered over the living room table was a drift of takeaway wrappers and cartons. There was a stack of empty cola cans next to what looked like a box from the giant all-you-can-eat bellybuster kebab. A couple of empty burger boxes and the remains of a couple of packets of the cheap fries sat on the counter next to a nearly untouched slice of their disgusting chocolate fudge cake.

On autopilot, Gareth switched on the kettle and got a mug from the cupboard, his shoulder aching as he reached up. His hands stung as he caught his knuckles on the edge of the drawer as he pulled out a spoon and he felt clumsy as he spooned the instant coffee into the mug. The kettle clicked off and Gareth carefully poured the boiling water on the granules before opening the fridge. There were pizza boxes in there. Gareth checked them carefully and then put the two meat feast pizzas and the garlic bread back into the fridge before getting out the milk. What had happened? What had happened? He took a sip of his coffee. He needed to think positive, to think with a warrior spirit. Whatever happened, he had cold pizza for breakfast, and there were worse things than that. Gareth nodded as confidently as he could manage and started up his laptop before getting out a plate and loading it with pizza.

His laptop had finally reached the home page and Gareth took a healthy bite of the pizza. He skipped over the news and opened Facebook. There was a message for him. “Hey, it’s Glyn, long time no see. Didn’t know you had it in you.”

He hadn’t worked with Glyn for at least two years. Gareth warily clicked the link, relieved to find a video clip. Then the world seemed to stop. The empty sound of the flat rang in his ears as he watched grainy, black and white CCTV footage of him being jumped by the lads outside the pizza shop – and fighting back. It was him, no doubt of it. It was his face, his hoodie, his scuffed shoes, but it wasn’t his expression. Instead there was a detached focus as the Gareth on the screen dealt with five young lads with a sort of clinical efficiency that you never saw in films. There were no fancy blocks or sweeping kicks. Instead that other Gareth handed out a systematic beating to each of them, not allowing them to flee until he had them crawling and retching on the ground. Gareth looked down at his knuckles. No wonder they were sore. He had hammered punch after punch into ribs, stomachs, backs and legs. No wonder his arms ached. He didn’t have the strength to lift a lad as big as him and throw him, but that’s what that other Gareth had done. The lads had hardly touched him. That other Gareth had blocked a few punches and kicks, but it had quickly become a lesson that those lads wouldn’t easily forget. Gareth hoped they were okay. What if the police came knocking? He put down the pizza slice he was holding and then carefully put the pizza box back in the fridge. He had lost his appetite.

Chapter Two

“Have you put on some weight?” Surjit asked.

Gareth, his mind occupied as he got to work, looked blankly at the Receptionist, who blushed. “I think I’ve put on a bit, but I’m still okay,” he said.

“No! I didn’t mean that!” Surjit said. “It’s just you look like you’ve filled out and maybe put on some muscle.”

“I’ve been working out,” Gareth said. “It’s good to know that I’m getting results.”

“I’ll have to come with you one day,” Surjit said. “It would be great to see your routine.”

“I’m very quiet at the gym,” Gareth said. “I just keep my head down and get on with it. Have you got the post?”

“Here it is.” Surjit smiled at him. “And it looks like there are a lot of orders on the website after you set up that link.”

“Great.” Gareth managed a smile back. “It’s good to be busy.”

Vague panic filled him as he left reception. He couldn’t go to the gym with Surjit – he didn’t know what to do there! His body seemed to go without him being present. He had even found his membership card, tucked behind his library card in his wallet. But he had never consciously gone in his life. His shirts were getting tighter around the shoulders, though, and the waist. of his trousers and jeans were looser. When he looked in the bathroom mirror, he could see muscles. He had been avoiding looking in the mirror for a while.

Gareth tossed the bundle of letters onto his desk, oblivious to how much his aim had improved over the last few weeks, and headed into the kitchen to make his morning tea. Syed was there, waiting for the kettle to boil. Gareth smiled and nodded and dropped a teabag into his mug.

“Are you coming out with the lads on Friday?” Syed asked. “We’re having a bit of a drink to celebrate the new campaign. Luke’s paying for the first £100 at the Red Lion. We’ll probably get a kebab after.”

Gareth’s brain froze. This was uncharted territory. He was just the admin boy, the gopher, and he was far too quiet to even be noticed by the larger than life sales team. He wouldn’t know what to say or do. Besides, he hadn’t remembered anything between Friday night and Sunday evening for the last three weekends and he wasn’t sure what was happening. To his horror, his mouth opened. “That would be great. Look forward to it,” he heard himself say.

“Awesome. Tomorrow night, straight from work, bring some decent kit.” Syed grinned as he tugged on Gareth’s well washed white office shirt. “There are a couple of lasses there that would be more than happy to meet you.”

To Gareth’s relief, the kettle snapped off and Syed poured the hot water into his mug and walked out. Gareth sagged a little as he poured his tea. What was going on? He’d wanted more confidence and perhaps the courage to go for a better job. Now he was… Gareth’s mind skittered away from the implications of what he was becoming and the time he was missing. He would open his washer to put in clothes and would find newly washed gym kit. He had bruises he couldn’t explain and his muscles were aching. The fridge was always full of meat.

Gareth took his mug slowly back to his desk. His knuckles were now a mass of scabs and his pockets had unexplained money in them. He started flicking through the post without really thinking about things. It didn’t take a genius to sort out invoices from payments and to toss the flyers, and with his mind occupied with more worrying matters, Gareth got the post done with greater efficiency every day.

Maybe he was going mad? He’d done a little browsing at home, ignoring the ads for protein bars and replica weapons, and perhaps it was a disassociation disorder. Gareth picked up the sorted pile, took a mouthful of tea, and headed off to hand out the post. A large stack for the accounts department, a wedge of orders for the sales team and a box of thread samples for Luke that he balanced easily as he jogged around the office.

Luke was looking out of his window and across the factory floor, but looked around as Gareth tapped the door and came in, dropping the samples neatly on his desk. “Thanks, Gareth,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Gareth, shut the door and sit down.”

Gareth wondered what he had done. The door sounded like a rifle shot as he gently pulled it closed and then he sat in the hard chair across from Luke’s desk and waited.

“That idea for the new flyers took off,” Luke said. “And the way it’s spread on the internet advertising has really opened up some doors. We’ve got a lot of interest. There’s even some big chains asking questions here.”

“That’s great,” Gareth said into the following silence.

“I suppose so,” Luke said. He paced over to the window again. His huge office had two windows, but Luke always ignored the view over the car park and instead was usually found staring down at the mill floor beneath. “This company is one of the few left in Yorkshire, you know. We are still hanging on here, despite competition, with reasonably priced knitwear for all ages. We still have our old reliables that have been keeping the lights on since the sixties.” Luke leant against the glass. “And they are still doing okay. But now Carli has been coming up with some new designs, and they seem to be hitting the mark.”

Gareth kept quiet. The whole mill had been shocked when Luke hired a new designer to add to, as well as update, the catalogue of cosy cardigans and sweaters. She had smoothed the ruffled feathers of the machinists and weavers, though, and the new items were moving well.

“I really need a proper advertising man,” Luke said. “Someone who’s been to college for it. But I can’t afford someone like that.” He shook his head as he watched the floor crew unload drums of dye onto the mill floor. “I’m going to have to go down there and sort it out in a minute.” He turned back to Gareth. “You came up with something worth having. How about, I pay you to go to evening school and get some qualifications in advertising, and you take on some of that on top of the office work? I get tax deductible on paying for you to take a course, you get a certificate and we see where we go from there, right?”

Gareth blinked. This is what he wanted! This was his chance at getting a better job and qualifications! He opened his mouth to agree, but was horrified to hear himself say, “I’ve seen how many extra sales you’re getting on the back of the internet campaign I threw together. You’re getting a good deal there. I’m sure that you’re already getting back more than the cost of the course from the campaign. I’ve been taking through the orders, remember. Even if I don’t have the qualifications, shouldn’t I be on more than minimum wage? And how do I know that you’ll pay for the full course?”

Luke wasn’t paying full attention. “They’re doing it all wrong down there. And Carli isn’t helping. She doesn’t need to check the orders.” He turned around to Gareth. “You should be biting my hand off.” He waited for Gareth’s reply, but Gareth was too appalled to say anything. Luke shook his head. “I’ll pay for the course up front, but any pay rise will be as a monthly bonus. I’m not committing to anything long term,” he grumbled. “This could be just a flash in the pan, something or nothing. But fair’s fair, you’ve made a difference.” Luke held up a thick finger. “I want to see results.”

“You’ll get them,” Gareth heard himself say with horrifying confidence.

There was a sudden scream from the floor below, followed by shouts and running feet. Gareth had a sensation of being pushed aside as his body rushed towards the window. The stacked boxes and barrels of dyes had collapsed and Carli was trapped under a stack of Shade 73. The boxes around her were teetering and the men on the floor were desperately trying to push the overhanging stack back before they fell and completely crushed Carli. Others were hovering around him on the floor, trying to work out how to pull her out without sending the poised boxes crashing down.

Gareth dimly heard Luke swear, then watched himself glance around, open the big window and leap out, catching the rail below to swing downwards, managing his fall and bouncing off the bottom of the metal stairs before rolling to his feet in the corner. He grabbed the yard brooms and the long multicoloured poles that stirred the dye and raced across the floor. Helpless, Gareth watched himself throw poles and brooms at the men on the floor and rush to Carli’s side.

Luke was racing as fast as his bulk would allow, thundering down the metal stairs. Surjit had rushed in and was trying to keep her head as she called 999 for an ambulance. All the while Gareth watched himself as he snapped out orders and pushed his skinny muscles to the limit, using all the leverage he could, forcing the biggest barrel back and yelling to Surjit to put a wedge at the base. Surjit was sobbing in the corner, so it was Luke and Syed who jammed rags and broken boxes under the barrel to stop it rolling and took the strain so that Gareth, the other Gareth, could leap like lightning to knock boxes back from the top of the pile and then add his meagre strength to the men pushing the nearest packs of dye back onto their pallets, yelling hoarse directions as he did so. Then, with reflexes that Gareth didn’t know he had, the other Gareth yelled for everyone to get clear, grabbed Carli and dragged her away from the crumbling pile as it collapsed, skidding over the concrete floor and landing hard against the door.

Then Gareth was back in control of himself as Surjit, still sobbing, grabbed Carli and started checking her over. The dye settled into an untidy heap with coloured powder shooting out from corners of damaged packs in a grotesque rainbow. There was an awful silence, broken by the sniffs of Surjit as she focused on Carli and the panting of the men. Gareth forced himself upright on shaking legs.

“Excuse me,” he said and bolted. He just made it to the bathroom in time before vomiting violently, again and again. His legs, arms and back felt on fire and he was horrifically aware that it could all have gone so wrong. How had he done that? What if he hadn’t? His stomach heaved again, retching helplessly. He was vaguely aware of the hubbub back on the mill floor as he leant helplessly against the partition. What was happening?

Whatever was happening, he couldn’t stay in here. He pushed himself up and staggered over the to washbasin to rinse his face and swill out his mouth. The door was flung open and Luke strode in.

“Are you alright, lad?” the manager asked.

“Yeah,” Gareth said. He was on his own here. No other presence was helping him out. But that was what started it, the quest for the warrior spirit. He wasn’t going to collapse now. He pulled himself upright. “How’s Carli?” he asked.

“The paramedics are here,” Luke said. He ran a hand over his pale face. “It’s a bad do, I tell you. They say she’s just badly bruised, but it could have been worse. It would have been worse if it hadn’t been for you.”

Where was that missing voice when he needed it? “I just saw what was needed,” Gareth said and put a shaky but comforting hand on Luke’s shoulder. “As long as Carli is alright. That’s what matters.” Gareth managed a shaky grin. “I shouldn’t be in here, hiding from the work. We need to get it all cleared up.”

“I think you’ve earned a break,” Luke said.

“I think we all did the right thing, no-one sat on their hands,” Gareth said. He struggled to find the words. “I think we all deserve a medal, and maybe we can have one when it’s all cleared up and we’ve worked out how to store the dyes properly.” He could dimly hear sirens as an ambulance approached. Gareth pulled himself upright, ignoring the aching muscles and the heaving stomach. “Let’s get this sorted out.”

Chapter Three

Gareth pulled into the mill car park and reversed neatly into his usual place. He turned off the car and paused. Until a month ago, he had been the loser that sorted the post. Then he had been unexpectedly good at some marketing ideas and yesterday he had somehow rescued Carli from collapsing boxes of dye powder. His muscles ached from it, and whatever happened last night. He had another missing block of time and a huge bruise covering his ribs on his left side. Still, whatever that Gareth was doing, his knuckles were healing up nicely and toughening up or whatever they did. He looked at the building. The last thing he wanted to do was go in and be the focus of attention before going on his first lads’ night out with the sales team, but he was out of options. He wanted a warrior spirit. It was time that he lived up to that.

Surjit was still looking pale as he went in. “Hi, Gareth,” she said, straightening the notepad on the reception desk and avoiding his eyes. “I’m glad that you made it today.” She pushed over a wad of envelopes. “And I’ve got the post.”

Gareth’s heart ached as he saw the echoes of yesterday’s accident in her. “How are you?” he asked. “Are you feeling okay?”

Surjit’s eyes brimmed with tears as she looked up at him. “I just went to pieces,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for you and Luke and Syed, Carli could have been killed.”

“Surjit, don’t be hard on yourself,” Gareth said gently. “You kept it together and got the paramedics here. And I know that Carli was glad that you were there for her when we got her free and she needed someone to speak up for her when the paramedics turned up and it all got complicated.” He gently patted her hand. “So you can take the credit and get on with things. I guess Luke is going to be ordering more dyes. You’ll have your hands full with the companies ringing about that.”

Surjit nodded. “He was so upset,” she said. “He was talking about getting some proper racking built for the dyes. They’ve just been bunged in the corner for years.” She looked down at her desk and then forced herself to smile up at Gareth. “Is that a new shirt?” she asked. “I know that the team usually bring in suits and stuff for the nights out.”

Gareth deliberately flexed his shoulders to show off his shirt, concentrating on distracting Surjit. “Do you like it? I finally got some shopping done last night in Leeds. I was thinking that I ought to look like someone in marketing,” he said.

Surjit laughed. “I can’t imagine you as ‘someone in marketing’. You’ve got too many muscles,” she said with a quick glance over him.

Gareth shook his head. “I don’t know about that, but I’ve got a suit and a nice shirt in the car for tonight. I don’t think I’ll live up to Syed and Jed, though.”

Surjit looked at him thoughtfully. “You more than lived up to them yesterday,” she said quietly.

“That was yesterday,” Gareth said, picking up the orders. “Tonight I’ve got to keep up with them in a pub. I’ve heard about what they’re like and I don’t think that I have a chance.”

Syed was in the kitchen when Gareth went to get his morning cup of tea. “Nice shirt,” Syed commented. “Is that what you’re wearing tonight? The Red Lion can get a bit dressy on the weekend. I’m not saying it’s no good,” he added quickly, “but it’s a bit low key.”

“It’s okay,” Gareth said. “I’ve got something in the car.” He grinned a little shyly at Syed. “But I got the hint that perhaps I should get some new clothes.”

Syed laughed. “And with you bulking out, you must need them,” he said. “Your gym routine must be punishing.”

Gareth carefully poured boiling water on the teabag. “It’s working anyway. So, tonight we head to the Red Lion and celebrate the new sales?”

“Yeah, Luke is really pleased with how it’s gone,” Syed said. He looked at Gareth thoughtfully. “You seem to have a knack for those adverts.”

Gareth shook his head. “As long as I don’t have to talk to anyone,” he said. “I don’t know how you do it all day.”

“You made it a lot easier,” Syed said. “And you’ve earned your drinks tonight. We’ll start off at the Red Lion with some drinks and bar food, then take a tour around town. We could end up anywhere.”

“That’s near Otley, isn’t it?” Gareth said.

Syed nodded. “We start off at a distance and work our way towards home, so the last taxi doesn’t cost so much. Anyway, I’ll catch you later.”

Gareth nodded at him as he left and then poured his own tea. He had bulked up over the last month, there was no doubt about that. His old shirts were stretching over the shoulders now. And when that Gareth had bought all the clothes that he had found when he woke up that morning, the taste seemed spot on. He now had a small selection of decent quality, durable clothing fit for work that didn’t strain over his chest and hang loose around his waist. All he had to do was work out how that Gareth had paid for them.

Gareth raced through the morning’s work. The orders were drying up again so he should start blocking out the next idea. And all sorts of stuff was hitting the firm’s inbox, including the extra orders, so he had a lot to check. He stopped scrolling through the emails as he became aware of someone standing by the desk. “Hello, Carli,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

Carli smiled. “I’m doing okay,” she said. “I’ve got bruises on my bruises, but it could have been worse.”

“At least Luke is getting some proper racking for the dyes,” Gareth said. “And you’ll be able to have a clear out of the older stuff.”

“Forget about that,” Carli said. “I just wanted to stop by and say thank you. I could have been really badly hurt yesterday.” She smiled a little shyly. “You could literally have saved my life,”

“Perhaps I saved a few bruises,” Gareth said. He wasn’t used to this and he didn’t feel that he could take full credit. It may have been his body involved in the rescue but he had been pushed to the side.

“I brought this to say thank you,” Carli said. “I hope you like whisky.” She placed a bottle bag on the table. “I’d like to get together next week. Luke said that you’re taking over the advertising, and I’d like to talk through some ideas with you.”

“I’m usually busy on Mondays,” Gareth said. “But perhaps we can set aside Tuesday afternoon. And there’s all sorts of stuff in the archives that could be useful.”

Carli’s eyes narrowed. “You’re thinking of the nostalgia angle,” she said.

Gareth shook his head. “I’m thinking of using some nostalgia, but it’s got to be up to date,” he said. “We can talk about it on Tuesday.”

Carli nodded. “I’ll make some notes. We can perhaps put something together for Luke on Tuesday. There’s a lot of ground to cover.”

Gareth was horrified as he heard his voice say, “And perhaps I could take you out afterwards, on Tuesday evening. Just for something like fish and chips or a curry. It would be a great chance to wind down.” He watched the colour flood Carli’s face and she smiled shyly again.

“I’d like that,” she said, and then whisked herself away.

Gareth looked into the bag. What was happening to his world? He recognised this brand of scotch. It was his father’s favourite and Gareth could remember, very faintly, seeing his father sip it carefully while he watched the rugby final on tv. Gareth had very few memories of his father before he died, but one of them involved this relatively expensive single malt. And now he had a date. Perhaps she was doing it out of gratitude for his actions yesterday. But Gareth remembered the blush before Carli left and something, somehow, said that she wasn’t just agreeing out of pity.

Gareth carried on working at his desk through lunch, eating as he scrolled through the endless pages of advertising. He needed to work with Luke on a good angle for the marketing, and he had a few ideas. He wiped his fingers clean on a tissue and made a few more notes. He needed to check some more sites. He could have a look through some of the fashion ‘influencers’ that fell into the demographic that also bought knitwear. He took an absentminded bite out of his hunk of cheese and quickly wiped his fingers before making some notes. He became aware of a presence and looked up. “Hi, Jed,” he said. “I’m sorry I was caught up in some research for the ‘how to make people buy our stuff’ stuff. I’m looking forward to tonight.”

“Yeah, me too,” Jed said. “I’m still coming down after yesterday. How about you? You were right in the middle of it. Carli reckons that you saved her life.”

“I’m not sure about that,” Gareth said with an uncomfortable smile. “We all pitched it. I think we’re all a little shaken. Still, at least we’ll get the dye sorted out. I’ve been hearing the factory floor complaining about the storage since I started here.”

Jed laughed. “Me too, and they were probably complaining about it when Luke started as an office junior. But you really stepped up,” he said. He looked thoughtfully at Gareth. “I was wondering, do you want to come along to rugby training next week? We could do with a decent fly half and you seem to have the speed and strength. They’re a good crowd.”

Gareth froze. He had been an abject failure at rugby at school and his strongest memory of it was a feeling of pain and complete humiliation. He had been too small, too slow and too weak. He hesitated. Yesterday he hadn’t been slow. The now familiar sensation of his voice speaking without any input from him washed over him. “I’d love to, but I’m too small,” he heard himself say. “But I’d be interested in coming along to a game. Are you playing tomorrow?”

Jed looked slowly over Gareth. “I don’t know about too small,” he said. “You’re bulking up nicely.” He nodded at Gareth’s lunchbox with the remains of steamed chicken, cheese and a pasta salad. “And you’re obviously taking it seriously. But it would be great to get any support. I’ll send you the details.”

“I’ll be there,” Gareth said, finally getting control over his own voice.

“And it’s good that you’re putting a lining on your stomach,” Jed said, grinning. “I hope you can keep up.”

“I don’t have a chance,” Gareth laughed. “But it’ll be a good night.” He was thoughtful as he watched Jed go. He was still a bit lightweight for rugby. Even after the muscles he’d put on, he had a way go before he could take the field. But perhaps one day… He didn’t finish that thought. He checked his new watch (and where the hell had he found the money for that?) and got back to work.

Gareth got an admiring glance from Surjit as he came out from getting changed. The suit was sharp and a dark, sophisticated blue and the crisp cotton shirt had cost, according to the label, more than Gareth’s previous wardrobe put together. He smiled at her. “I’ve scrubbed up okay, I think,” he said.

“You look really good,” Surjit said. “I wish I was coming with you.”

“I don’t make the rules,” Gareth said. “But I’m sure that you’ll hear all about it on Monday.”

“If any of you can remember it!” Surjit snorted. “Have a good weekend.”

“And you,” Gareth said. He watched her leave and cross the car park to her car. He turned around and looked for Carli. She was coming down the steps to reception and even after a hard week and a major accident, she was looking as trim as ever. He smiled. “I hope you can get some rest over the weekend. You must feel battered,” he said.

Carli smiled back. “I’ll be fine. I’ll spend some time going over the new shades that are out there. We’re practically starting our dye collection from scratch so I think it’s worth having a look,” she said. “But I think that a lot of the old favourites are used so often for a reason. I’ll see what I find.”

“I thought that the guys in the dye house would be having fits,” Gareth said. “But I think they agree with you. It will be interesting to see what’s new. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.” He paused. “If we can get overtime, I don’t mind staying back on Monday, if you’ve nothing else on. I’m following your designs, and I want to keep the advertising that I’ve started going.” He grinned. “We can even get some fish and chips afterwards.”

Carli looked thoughtful. “I get the feeling that we’ll work hard enough to earn it,” she said, then grinned. “I’ve got a few designs going through already, but I think I’ll need to add quite a lot more to keep up. Anyway, try and stay out of trouble tonight and I’ll see you Monday.”

“I’ll probably still have the hangover,” Gareth joked as he watched her wave goodbye and go out to the car.

“I think you’re in there,” Jed said as he came out of the men’s locker room. “There’s nothing like saving a lass’s life to get her to come on a date.”

Gareth looked at him calmly. “It’s not like that at all,” he said, “Is everyone here?”

Jed blinked at the unexpected pushback but nodded. “It’s only the sales team tonight,” he said. “And you count because of the flyers.”

Syed came up behind them and nodded. “And that’s why Luke put £100 behind the bar,” he said. “Do you think you can stand the pace?” he asked Gareth.

“Not a chance,” Gareth said, leaving the building to the night porter and security to lock up.

Pizza and drinks at the Red Lion led to more drinks led to a different pub and then Syed thought that there was a pub just down the road but had forgotten that it had shut and after some drunken wanderings they ended up at The Iron Sickle. Gareth hung back as the others staggered in. He had been carefully nursing a vodka and tonic in each bar, drinking perhaps half and then ‘forgetting’ it, or simply abandoning it. Once the sales team had ploughed through the money at the Red Lion, they were buying their own and no-one was watching Gareth sitting quietly on the edge of the group or realised when he switched to straight tonic. Now, as they approached the dirty building, Gareth was grateful that he mostly had his wits about him.

“Are you sure this is worth it?” Gareth asked. “It looks a bit of a dive. We could head back towards the Eagle and maybe get a game of pool or something.”

“Nah, mate, we’ll be fine,” Syed yelled as he held on to the broken streetlight. “We’ll have a pint here and then head to the Eagle after. I bet I can beat you at pool!”

“I’m not betting against you!” Gareth said, as the rest of the lads erupted in laughter. He could feel part of his mind working out how to hustle money out of pool but it was being drowning by his unease. It looked like the sort of pub where only locals drank, they drank hard and didn’t like strangers. The half dozen or so lads from the sales team were walking into a potential mess. He looked up and down the street with no idea how they had ended up here. Half the streetlights were out and drifts of rubbish surrounded a burned out car in the tiny pub car park. Before all the strangeness Gareth would have had no hesitation in turning around and going home. Now he followed the team in, every sense on alert.

The pub was dated and shadowy. Too many hard faced men sat around the stained tables with a pint in front of them, and the single bartender didn’t smile as he saw the team heading to the bar. Gareth hung back. He could feel the unease of the other Gareth overlying his own and he didn’t feel reassured. He found himself discreetly noting all the corners, counting the men and checking the exits. At least there weren’t too many big brawlers but the wiry drinkers looked like they could handle themselves. Something else was nagging at the back of that Gareth’s mind, but he was distracted as the bartender refused to serve Syed.

“You’ve had enough, sir,” the bartender said. “We don’t want any trouble, so you can call a taxi from the phone on the end of the bar.”

Gareth’s heart sank further. All those in telesales were trained to identify and overcome objections and he could see Syed accepting the challenge. Syed and Jed would enjoy the arguing as much as the beer. He checked his phone and wasn’t surprised when he couldn’t get a signal. He stuffed it deep into his pockets and loosened his shoulders. “Come on,” he said. “We can get a few games in at the Eagle. I can call the taxi now.”

“Listen to your friend,” the bartender said. His eyes swept the room. “I don’t want any trouble.”

“Listen, mate, we’re just wanting a few pints, and you can’t refuse legal tender,” Syed started.

“It’s cash as well, so no fees from a card company,” Jed added. “All legal tender. You can’t refuse to take that.”

Gareth glanced briefly at his friends who were swaying gently at the bar before continuing to watch the other men around the bar. It was never a good sign when there were no women in a bar, not in a rundown place like this. “Come on, mate,” he said. “It’s not worth the bother. Trouble is the last thing we need.”

“But it looks like trouble is what you’re getting,” a tall man said, unfolding from a stool near the bar.

“I’m going down to the cellar to check the kegs,” the bartender said. “I won’t find any trouble when I come back, will I?”

There were some unpleasant chuckles from around the bar. “We won’t leave any traces,” the tall man said. “Take your time.”

Gareth watched the bartender slowly walk into the back and then he heard the sound of a cellar door opening then clicking shut. “Come on, Jed,” he said. “We’ve all had a lot to drink, let’s get a taxi and a kebab.” He didn’t have much hope of getting through to the man. Jed and Syed were the main sales reps and they prided themselves on their ability to drink hard and to talk their way into and out of everything. They were also big lads who looked hard to push around. In the back of his head, that Gareth was almost screaming with unease which intensified as men from around the shadowy edges of the bar started to stand. “Come on,” Gareth urged. “It’s going to be ages before he comes back and I don’t feel like waiting for a drink. We might as well go somewhere else.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Syed said. “We can go where our money’s welcome.”

Jed scowled as he looked around. “Yeah,” he said. “And somewhere cleaner.” He tried to stalk towards the door, only staggering a little.

“But we haven’t had our fun yet,” another of the watchful drinkers stood between Jed and the door.

“We’re leaving,” Jed blustered and tried to push the man out of his way. Instead he received a push to the chest that sent him sprawling backwards onto the floor in an undignified heap.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” the tall man said. “Anyone can see it’s a local bar, not for kids like you.”

“What did you say?” Syed snarled.

Gareth felt relieved as he felt the other Gareth, that Gareth push him aside. There were half a dozen of the sales team plus him. There were at least a dozen other drinkers in this dirty bar, most of them were standing and all of them looked like they could handle themselves in an unfair fight. Something nagged at the back of that Gareth’s mind, the way that the drinkers were looking hungrily at the sales team like chickens to be plucked, but he didn’t have time. The tall man swung at Syed and connected, sending the big man flying backwards against the bar. As Syed and Jed pulled themselves to their feet, Gareth stepped forward.

He didn’t have time for this and he didn’t have the luxury of space. The numbers might be close, but this wouldn’t be a fair fight if it got going. He had to close it down fast. The time for talking and calculations was over. That Gareth stepped forward with precision, grabbed the tall man’s hair and slammed his head hard down on the bar. The man slid down onto the floor but Gareth wasn’t paying attention. Instead he had kicked a bar stool towards two approaching drinkers, slowing them down as they pushed it out of the way and giving that Gareth time to punch another of the drinkers hard in the sternum. As that one fell back, winded and gasping, Gareth glanced behind. “Get the door clear,” he snapped.

Jed and Syed were taking on a couple of the other brawlers. They were too drunk to do much more than slow the locals down, but it meant that Tony and Dean could hustle and jostle the local guarding the door out of the way.

“We haven’t had our fun yet,” another drinker snarled. “And don’t think you won’t pay for what you did to our mate.”

That Gareth sensed a hostile presence behind him and drove his elbow back and high. There was a crunch as something connected and a lot of swearing as someone fell back but Gareth ignored it as he stamped on the back of the knee of knee of a local about to swing at Syed following with a swift kick to the head as his target crumpled. “Everyone – get out!” Gareth called.

“I said we haven’t had our fun yet,” the drinker’s voice sunk to a growl. The speaker leaned forward and flowed. Before their appalled eyes, the wiry drinker with dirty hair was now a wolf – a skinny wolf with matted fur and hatred in its eyes.

Gareth swore and, triggered by some ancient memory, kicked the creature hard in the throat. It would have killed anything else, and it at least slowed it down. He grabbed up a pint glass and rammed it hard into the nearest hostile face. “Get out of the door!” he yelled.

“That’s not real! That’s not real!” Syed cried as Gareth grabbed his jacket and almost threw him towards the door.

“Move!” Gareth snapped as he flung a barstool hard into the side of an approaching local. The snarls coming from the corners were too chilling to be ignored. He glanced around quickly and then backed towards the door.

“I’ll make you pay!” one of the few remaining locals snarled, crouching down. Gareth didn’t wait to find out, but slid quickly through the door and out.

“Come on!” he said. “We can’t hang around.”

“They weren’t real,” Syed said.

“We’re all out,” Gareth confirmed as he glanced quickly around the shocked group. “It must have been the dodgy beer.”

“Yeah,” Syed said doubtfully, not objecting as Gareth marched them down the road.

“And we can have a few games of pool at the Eagle,” Gareth added.

Jed stumbled as he looked over his shoulder. “They’re not coming after us, are they?” he asked.

Gareth glanced quickly behind him. “I don’t think so,” he heard himself say, “But it’s probably not a good idea to come back. The beer’s foul anyway.”

Syed nodded, blankly but Jed met Gareth’s eyes. “It wasn’t the beer,” Jed said softly. “And thanks, mate. It looks like you’re making a habit of saving people.”

Gareth glanced back again, but there was still no sign of pursuit. “I just saw what was happening,” he said.

Jed looked at him steadily. “I don’t know what’s happened to you, Gareth, but it scares the living daylights out of me,” he said. “I’m still glad it happened, though, and I definitely owe you a pint.”

Gareth felt the adrenalin draining from him. “I’m keeping off the carbs mate – make it a vodka and tonic and a game of pool,” he said. He looked over at the rest of the stunned team. “We’ll have a few games of pool, a quiet drink and a kebab and we’ll forget that this ever happened.”

“No,” Jed said, “We won’t forget. We just won’t remember so often.”

“That works,” Gareth said as the other Gareth, that Gareth, slipped back beneath the surface of his mind.

Chapter Four

He woke up in Gareth’s body and stretched. Last night could have been a lot worse. He threw back the covers and sat up. Pale gold light filtered through the crack in the thin curtains and it looked like it would be a beautiful autumn day. He swung himself out of bed and pulled out the exercise mat and weights. The lad needed to build up some muscles if he was going to get anywhere. Besides, he liked to start the day by getting the blood moving.

Afterwards he stepped into the shower, deep in thought. Last night had been interesting. He’d assumed that the wolfkind had gone with everything else he remembered. Still, at least everyone got out of there without a bite. He let the hot water pound into his back, easing the muscles. The skirmish in the Iron Sickle hadn’t been too strenuous, but things had got a little more active after he saw the rest of the lads into their taxis. He wiped the water from his face and flexed his shoulders. At least his knuckles were finally starting to toughen up.

He stepped out of the shower and dried himself before padding, still naked, into the kitchen. There was too much that he didn’t know. He had a surface knowledge of a lot of things, and that device with the internet was useful, but there were too many important gaps. He made himself a large bowl of porridge with an ample side dish of berries before booting up Gareth’s ancient laptop. The lad would need a new one of these soon, he thought, but that was a problem that could wait. What he needed was information – and he had no idea of where to start.

He poured himself a cup of hot black tea and added sugar with a liberal hand. What he needed was someone who knew more about the old ways, someone who knew about wolfkind and elfen. All the people he once trusted had long since gone to dust. The laptop finally reached the home screen and he checked online local maps. Everything had changed so much. He didn’t even know where to start looking. He scrolled aimlessly around the area, hoping for inspiration. He found it. Of course, if anyone was around it would be there. He drained his mug of tea and stood. He had to get moving while the day was still young.

He parked Gareth’s car at the side of a main road and then walked along the lanes up into the Yorkshire Dales. He picked his way along the narrow road, then branched off onto a barely visible track and over a dip in the hills to a sheltered hollow where he stopped. The structure had changed, but it was still very much the same. A small cottage, now stone, stood a little above the garden that was flowing in ragged patches of strange plants. Even as the wheel of the year turned, the garden was flourishing with strange plants. The scent of mint and elder hung heavily in the air and a wisp of smoke was rising from the chimney. He looked carefully around and pushed open the gate. The thin path wound up towards the cottage between banks of herbs and flowers, giving him time to wonder if he was doing the right thing. Then he was facing the worn wooden door and all choices were gone. He knocked firmly.

The woman who came to the door looked in her mid fifties, with wildly curling hair screwed in a knot at the top of her head. Her oversized earrings swung as she tilted her head and pulled the large cardigan around herself. “Go away,” she said. “I’m not interested in strangers.”

“Look again, Anwen,” he said.

She stared. “It’s Violet these days, actually,” she said and leaned closer. “Bron?”

Bron smiled. “Yep, and I’m just as surprised as you are,” he said.

Violet opened and shut her mouth a few times and then shook her head. “Come in,” she said, holding the door open. “And what do you drink these days?”

“Tea, no milk, four sugars,” Bron said. “It’s good to see you.” He stepped inside the cottage. Of course everything had changed, but in essence, in the soul of the house, it was the same. A loom stood in a corner and drying herbs hung in bunches from the rafters. The seats looked comfortable, stacked with cushions and blankets, and the evil looking tom cat curled in front of the small fire was the same sort of cat that had always found their way there. The books heaped on shelves and on tables were new, and Bron was unfamiliar with knitting, but the same warmth and comfort radiated through the home, filled with the scents of flowers and herbs and good food. “I’m glad you’re still here.”

“Where else would I go?” Violet said as she pulled mugs from a cupboard. “I’m linked to the spring at the back.”

“It doesn’t really stop you, though,” Bron said. “I know your kind travelled.”

Violet ignored that and spooned dried herbs from a jar in one mug, dropping a modern tea bag in another. “And you’re in that poor body,” she said. “No wonder I didn’t recognise you.”

“It’s not my doing, Violet,” Bron said. “I was woken. The first thing I knew was that I was I was being summoned into him. Silly kid didn’t know what he was doing. That was about a month ago.”

“I haven’t heard any wars starting,” Violet said, pouring water from the kettle on the fire. She turned and looked at him. “Except for those drug people.”

Bron grinned widely. “I found them I think the first or second night I was back. One of them tried to mug me. I mean, this kid had the muscle strength of unspun wool but I could still sort them out.” He took the tea from Violet. “Then I found that one lot was blaming the other and that there was already bad blood, so I took advantage.”

“A lot of cash has been stolen, apparently,” Violet said.

“Well, I’m more expensive than the kid knows,” Bron said. “But with that and a few other jobs here and there, I’ve got some money.”

“I’m not sure that I want to ask,” Violet said primly. She sat in the small armchair next to the fire.

Bron sat opposite her. “So much has changed,” he said. “And I’m adrift in the world. I thought that your kind, or rather, those akin to your kind, had gone. Then I went to the Iron Sickle last night.”

Violet froze for a moment before taking a very small sip of her herbal tea. “How did that go?”

“I avoided the teeth,” Bron said. “I went with a group of lads from the kid’s workplace, and we all got out in one piece. I don’t know what they made of it all.” He took a mouthful of tea. “I’ll find out on Monday, I suppose. But I need to speak to the Defender.”

Violet looked at Bron thoughtfully. “Could you wait one moment, please?” she asked.

Bron nodded and sat back, sipping his tea. He remembered this of old. Violet wasn’t bad as nature spirits went, but she had her own way of doing things that couldn’t be rushed. She had always had a fondness for him, and in truth he had always had a soft spot for her, but she was still unpredictable and there was often a price for information. At least they had come to an agreement about food and drink. Bron looked down at his tea. He hoped that still held.

For a few moments Violet appeared wreathed in an iridescent blue shimmer, her eyes thoughtful as she stared down at her tea. Then the shimmer faded and she looked up. “You died three thousand years ago,” she said. “You are sharing a body with another soul. And I fear that you are needed.” She frowned. “There is so much to tell you!”

“I was hoping that you could tell me where to find the Defender,” Bron said. “It should be his job.”

Violet shook her head. “They’re called Paladins these days,” she said. “And there isn’t one now. There was some trouble a few years back and it got complicated.” She trailed off. “There isn’t a proper Prince, either, what you used to call Dark Kings. Lord Skyrack got caught in a fight he couldn’t manage and he disappeared. The Paladin died, but no new one came.”

“Who’s dealing with the hounds like the ones I found in the Iron Sickle, then?” Bron asked. “Wolfkind can’t go unchecked, Violet, not with this many people around.”

“You remember Lord Marius, don’t you?” Violet asked.

“He’s the new Dark King?” Bron said, surprised. “Mind you, he was always crafty with sorcery for an elfen.”

“It’s ‘Prince’ and not ‘Dark King’, and yes, it’s him,” Violet said. “But it’s not official. It’s been six score years or more since Skyrack fell and we haven’t had a Paladin or Prince since then. Normally Lord Marius would instruct the leader of the local pack.” Violet sighed. “That’s Mark Davis, but his wife is sick and he’s not holding things together as he should. Besides, they spend their time in Leeds and don’t bother coming out to the edges half the time.”

“The wolfkind in the Iron Sickle were acting like a pack,” Bron said. “And they weren’t exactly playing like puppies. They need to be put down. Would this Mark Davis do it?”

Violet wrinkled her nose. “He’d want to and make the right noises,” she said. “He might get the pack together, but they’re not at the top of their game. He’d have a fit if elfen or vampires got involved, though.”

“So who do they go to if there isn’t a Defender?” Bron asked.

“It’s a Paladin, not a Defender,” Violet said with a sigh. “And there are people called the Knights Templar. They’re okay, but if they deal with the strays at the Iron Sickle without clearing it with Mark first, there’ll be problems.”

“This Mark Davis,” Bron said. “He’s not holding the pack together, he’s not leading the werewolves in the area, he’s not protecting his territory, he’s not getting rid of the mutts but he’ll throw a tantrum if someone else does his job. What’s gone wrong? And why isn’t another one of the things challenging for leadership?”

“Things are different,” Violet said. “But that’s not all of it.” She looked down at her cooling mug of herbal tea. “You were buried with the Orache Stone, and I helped to weave the magic over your tomb to keep you and it undisturbed. You have woken and the Orache Stone has been taken.”

Bron ran a weary hand over his face. “I remember how hard it was to get that thing buried,” he said. “I remember what it was like.”

“So do I,” Violet said. “I remember even after all these years. We need to find your tomb.”

Bron drove them up to Otley Chevin and parked in a small carpark. “Around here, I think,” he said.

“How did you learn to drive?” Violet asked, getting out of the car.

Bron spread his hands in bewilderment. “Some things are just there, like the kid’s memories of driving and the internet and stuff. And I’ve got a sense of how things should be,” he said. “Just don’t press me for too many details.”

Violet laughed and then looked him over. “You haven’t forgotten everything?” she asked, flirtation in her eyes. “I wonder how you could do with a fresh young body but all that passionate experience.”

“Behave yourself,” Bron said, grinning back. “And the lad’s setting up to have a date with a woman that he likes so I don’t want his body to be seen with anyone else.” He looked at her thoughtfully, remembering past times. “Not that I’m not tempted,” he added.

Violet pouted but nodded up the hill. “You were buried up here,” she said. “It was a lovely leave-taking. Everyone came, even Lord Skyrack, and the feast ran for three days.”

Bron stood for a moment, looking up the hill. “Everyone’s gone,” he said. “My wife and sons have long been dust, and the friends in the Brotherhood gone with them.” He looked back at Violet. “You’re the first familiar face that I’ve seen for a long while. And nothing sounds the same or looks the same…” He looked back up the hill. “But if the Orache Stone has been brought back into the world, the same problems will come knocking at our door.”

“It’s not really your fight,” Violet said. “You fought your battles a long time ago – and fought them well. You deserve your rest.”

Bron walked up to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “If I don’t fight then who will?”

The climb to the site of the old barrow was steep and they were both out of breath when they reached the top. “At least you gave me a good view in death,” Bron said.

“Everyone knew,” Violet said. “They all knew the battles you fought.”

“I would have fought even if they hadn’t,” Bron said. “But it made it easier, them remembering.” He looked over the valley towards Otley. For a moment he was lost in distant memories before he brought his attention back to the present. “Speaking of remembering – how many knew about the Orache Stone? Was it common knowledge?”

Violet shook her head. “Lord Skyrack still had some sense then. He forbade anyone to mention it. The mortals forgot within a generation or two, and the werewolves and the boggarts that knew died out and there was no memory.”

Bron frowned. “How did you know it had gone, and how could they have found it?” he asked.

“I felt the disruption of my magic,” Violet said. “But it’s been a while since I cast that enchantment on your resting place. I was trying to remember what I had hidden and I only worked it out last week.”

“When did you first feel it?” Bron asked.

Violet frowned and looked over the view. It was quiet and dog walkers could be heard in the distance over the surrounding birdsong. The air was crisp and clear and the soft breeze ruffled the fading grasses. “It was nearer Midsummer,” she said. “No, wait…” The soft blue shimmer enveloped her and Bron jumped lightly onto a rock to keep watch. The blue shimmer faded and Violet nodded. “It was the week after Lughnasadh,” she said. “I remember that the weather was warm and it was too dry.”

“So that was the beginning of August,” Bron said thoughtfully, jumping back down. “The lad summoned me at the end of September, and it’s now nearly Samhain.” He grimaced. “Or Halloween as they call it. Who ever has it has a start on us. We still need to know how it was found.”

Violet shrugged. “People scry for all sorts of things these days,” she said. “And it depends on who’s found it. Apart from the drug people, I’ve not heard of any trouble.”

“It could have been taken out of the area,” Bron said. “Or it may not be violent.”

“If it isn’t violent now then it will be soon,” Violet said darkly. “And it will stay close to this place. The power of the Orache Stone is tied to these hills just as I am tied to the spring.”

“It could be the wolfkind, the werewolves,” Bron said. “It looked like a lot of lordless beasts had been dragged into a pack.”

Violet shuddered. “That could go bad very quickly,” she said. “But you can’t call them beasts anymore. You have to say non-normal. It’s a matter of respect.”

“I don’t think I’d respect any thing that did half the stuff I fought against all those years ago,” Bron said. “But I’ll behave.” He frowned as he looked at the broken barrow. Age had not been kind to his resting place and he could see the evidence of dirt being scratched away before new grass grew around it. “I need to speak to these Knights Templar. They’ll need to know what to expect. How can I meet them?”

“I’ll set up a meet,” Violet said. “But I want something in return.”

Bron narrowed his eyes. “What do you want?” he asked. “And will it hurt?”

Violet laughed and pulled her hair free. As she shook her head, she changed before him. The years fell from her and now there was a young woman with dark, deep eyes and black, shining ringlets. “Do you remember those days by the tarn?” she asked. “We spent such time and did such things! You married when your father told you that you should, and you were a good and loyal husband to your wife, but she was never your first love. Indulge my memories with that young body. Spend the weekend with me in my cottage and… remember your first love. If you do, I’ll set up the meeting.”

Bron felt his borrowed body stirring at the memories but he shook his head. “In all these years, you’ve not learned to think first,” he said gently. “Can you imagine your pain if you thought that any caresses from me were part of a bargain instead of genuine desire? You’d lose your mind.”

Violet stared at Bron with huge, pain-filled eyes before turning away. “You’re right,” she whispered. “You always were. You always kept me safe.”

“And you’d be there for me even if I didn’t keep the bargain,” Bron said. “You always were good at heart.”

“Don’t tell everyone!” Violet said quickly, getting back some of her spark as her eyes gleamed with laughter.

“Why don’t we go back to your cottage and spend some time…” Bron let his gaze linger over the spirit until she blushed. “We’ll spend some time remembering just for the sake of old times, and then next week you can perhaps set up a meeting with these Knights Templar because it’s the right thing to do. Are they safe? I mean, are they safe for you?”

“As long as I behave,” Violet said. “You would be surprised how uneventful things are now.”

“If a pack of stray werewolves has got hold of the Orache Stone then that will change quick enough,” Bron said grimly. “There’ll be more than enough excitement to go around.”

Chapter Five

Image from Unsplash, taken by Andy Wang

“You need to show me the mail,” Surjit said as Gareth strode in to work on Monday morning. “Luke said that I’d be sorting the post from now on.”

“And good morning to you!” Gareth said with a grin. “Let me get my tea first.”

Surjit smiled back. “Okay, I’ll be waiting. And I want to hear all about Friday night as well,” she added.

Gareth headed for the kitchen. On one hand, he felt confident in his new clothes that fit and looked good. He was definitely putting on muscle and feeling better. On the other hand,  his memory of the weekend after Friday evening was its customary blank. He remembered turning up to Jed’s rugby match and cheered him on, but apart from that there was nothing. He had also found some scratches in strange places in the shower and was tired in different ways. Please let whatever was possessing him not done anything extreme. He nodded to Syed as he grabbed a mug. “How was the hangover?”

Syed ignored Gareth’s light-hearted tone. “You got us out of there,” he said quietly. “And what were they?”

Gareth shook his head. “I don’t know, mate,” he said. “All we can do is forget about them.”

Syed looked uneasy. “Do you think we should talk to anyone about this?” he asked tentatively.

Gareth shook his head. “Who would believe us?” he asked. He filled up his mug. “Don’t worry about it. Worry about how much you can sell. Luke is scarier than anything you can find in a bar.”

Syed forced a grin. “I don’t know,” he said. “Tony got caught up with this lass once…” He broke off. “I’ll tell you next time we’re out drinking. Are you planning more campaigns?”

“I’ve got a few ideas,” Gareth said. “I want to see what Carli is thinking. Surjit is going to take over the post and that should free up some time for me. Speaking of which, I’d better go and get her started.”

Gareth powered through the day. It didn’t take long to get Surjit sorting the post, then he raced through the emails and orders from the rickety website before going back to his notes and working through the lunch hour. Then he was dragged into Luke’s office to get the details of the course that he was doing.

“You’ve got some catching up to do,” Luke said. “You should have started two weeks ago. But it’s all online and you can do it at work.”

“Thanks, Luke,” Gareth said. “I won’t let you down.”

Luke glared at him. “I heard that you were inviting Carli on a date,” he said. “I thought that you were just going to be working together.”

For a brief moment Gareth thought that the other Gareth was going to step in, but he managed to use his own words for a change. “I’m not planning on seducing her over a fish and chips supper,” he said coolly. “We’re going to be talking about work and I’m looking forward to her company. I want to see the direction that she’s taking so that I can work any marketing around it.”

Luke’s eyes narrowed. “A couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have been worried. Carli will soon see off anyone that bothers her,” he said. “But you saved her when the stacks of dye collapsed and that might have turned her head. And I heard that you dealt with some trouble on Friday as well.”   He tapped thick fingers on his desk. “Something’s changed.”

“I won’t take advantage of her,” Gareth said, awkwardly using the old fashioned phrase. “I mean, I won’t mess her around. And we probably won’t be doing that much work together, not once we get everything going. I just need to know where to aim stuff.”

Luke shook his head sadly. “I was desperate enough when I got a chance for Carli to come here,” he said. “Now you’re doing all these advertising things and the orders are finally starting to move. My mates at the club told me that I need a new website when I still can’t work out how to use the one that we’ve got. And now you are asking a lass for a date.”

Gareth thought back to how much he had changed. “But it’s for the better, right?” he said. “There’s more money coming in.”

“There is at the moment,” Luke said. “But we haven’t kept the business going for this long by being reckless. So you get those new advertising ideas going, and I’ll make sure that you get a bonus and that’ll do for now. And see you behave with Carli, that’s all I’m saying.”

Gareth got back to his desk feeling a little bewildered but dived quickly into his work before taking a laptop with him into Carli’s room. “Is this a good time?” he asked.

Carli nodded and pushed aside a sheaf of papers. “It’s perfect,” she said. “I’ve got some pictures of the new designs here and this is what I’m hoping to bring in.” She pulled over a folder. “Have you had any of the whiskey yet?” she asked.

Gareth floundered for a moment. Anything could have happened over the weekend. But then he remembered seeing the unopened bottle in his desk drawer this morning. “I’m saving it for something special,” he said. “Perhaps for Christmas. You didn’t have to get me anything, you know, but I’m grateful.”

Carli smiled at him and for a moment something hung in the air, some potential connection, before she opened the folder. “These are the colours that came down the catwalks this year,” she began. “I’m trying to reflect them.”

Gareth started making notes. “I can use some of these as themes for social media,” he said. “I’ve got some ideas saved.”

“Does Luke know how much work you’ve done on this?” Carli asked.

“He’s fine as long as it doesn’t cost money,” Gareth chuckled. “I’ve saved these posts here, but I wondered how you want to play it. What are the stars of the next batch, so I can do a proper lead up.”

Carli looked at him with respect. “Have a look here,” she said as she pushed some cards towards him. “I’ll email you a list of the shades to use, but this is what they look like.”

The afternoon flew by as they worked through the direction of Carli’s designs and how Gareth could work with them. By the time the rest of the office had left and the cleaners were pointedly vacuuming around their desks, Gareth was starving. “I said that I’d buy you fish and chips,” he said. “There’s a decent pub near Kirkstall, I’ll treat you there.”

Carli smiled up at him. “As long as I can return the favour some other time,” she said. “And I’m starving as well.”

“I’ll drive us there,” Gareth said. “And I’ll bring you back to pick up your car. If that’s okay,” he added.

Carli looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. “Yes, that’s fine,” she said eventually.

The pub was almost empty and Gareth gave the order at the bar and then settled down in a corner with Carli. “We should put this on expenses,” he said. “We’ve worked late enough.”

Carli laughed. “Luke would have a fit,” she said as she took her cola from him. “I swear he twitches at expenses. But he’s putting his money where his mouth is at the moment. You’ve got your course and he’s muttering about getting the website redesigned.” She laughed again. “Although he does look like he’s in pain when he talks about it. He’s a true Yorkshireman – he likes to keep hold of his brass.”

“Gareth Petersen?”

Gareth looked up. Standing next to him was a tall, bulky man. Tattoos ran up his neck and under his cropped hair and the thick leather jacket and sturdy jeans couldn’t hide the physical strength in his powerful frame. Cold fear ran through him as he met the man’s cold, assessing gaze. Gareth stood. “Yes, that’s me,” he said.

“No,” the woman behind him said. “That’s not him. I mean the other one.”

“I’m Sir Dylan,” the big man said, “And I’m here to speak with Bron.”

Gareth gritted his teeth as he felt the now familiar surge of the other Gareth taking over. “Sir Dylan?” Bron said. “Are you one of the Knights Templar?” He looked past the man to the woman behind. “Violet, this isn’t really the time.”

“I felt the Orache Stone move,” Violet said. “It’s working. Time is running out.” She looked over to where Carli was sitting. “He spent the weekend with me, you know,” she said, her dark eyes snapping.

“Violet!” Bron snapped. “We talked about this.” He turned to Sir Dylan. “I’m enjoying a meal with my friend. It wouldn’t be polite to abandon her. Perhaps we can meet later.”

“How much does your friend know?” Sir Dylan asked as his eyes swept over Carli.

Carli flinched back and Bron put a firm hand on Sir Dylan’s broad chest. “Stay away from her,” he snarled. He glanced over at Violet. “And you can stay out of my sight. I told you how it was.”

Violet’s lips pressed together and colour drained from her face. “Bron, you wouldn’t abandon me,” she whispered.

“I am not yours!” Bron said. “You know why I can’t.” He turned to Sir Dylan. “I’ll meet in two hours.”

Sir Dylan pushed Bron’s hand aside and looked him warily over him before nodding. “Meet me at Kirkstall Abbey,” he said. “You should bring the girl.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Bron growled. “This lady is Carli Sykes and not just some girl. Show respect.”

Sir Dylan’s eyes narrowed and he turned to Carli. “I’d be grateful if you would come with Gareth and or Bron to Kirkstall Abbey in two hours’ time, Ms Sykes,” he said carefully.

“She doesn’t need to be there,” Bron said.

“I think that perhaps she does,” Sir Dylan said, looking back at Bron.

“I can’t be there,” Violet whispered. “It’s too holy, too sacred.”

“Well that’s a relief because I am disgusted by you,” Bron snapped. “You went too far.”

Violet wailed and the part of Gareth watching this insane conversation nearly collapsed as she seemed to fade and dissipate into the background and was suddenly not there. Gareth turned to look at Carli who seemed as appalled as he felt. “I’m sorry about that, lass,” Bron said. “She won’t harm you.” He turned to glare at Sir Dylan. “And this big guy won’t hurt you either.”

Sir Dylan scowled at him. “Two hours,” he said, pointedly checking his watch and then handing over a card. “Just in case.” He spun around and stalked off, deftly avoiding the waitress bringing over their order.

Gareth felt Bron drain away as the waitress placed the fish and chips in front of them and then left with a curious final glance. “I’m sorry about that,” he whispered. Warrior spirit, he reminded himself. “But I’m not going to let it put me off my food. I’m starving.”

Carli’s hand trembled a little as she pulled the plate towards her. “We earned it, didn’t we,” she managed. “What is going on?” she asked. “Luke said that something had happened to you and now this. You sounded different.”

Gareth speared a large chunk of fish and bit into it, chewing thoroughly as his brain whirred. “A few months ago I wanted to get a better job so I tried to develop a warrior spirit,” he said finally. “But I think that I got a warrior spirit as a sort of timeshare in me. It was him that pulled you out from under the dye boxes, and him that got the lads out of trouble on Friday.” Gareth was faintly aware of Bron’s presence in the back of his mind. “I have no memories of huge chunks of time. I can’t remember most of this weekend, so I could have been with that woman. I didn’t know whether I’d drunk any of the whiskey you gave me or not, but I suppose he’s the one that should drink it as he earned it.” He stabbed his fork at a chip. “And I have no idea who that guy is or what’s going on.” He forced himself to look at Carli. “I’m sorry that you’ve got caught up in this.”

Carli took a breath. “What about the advertising?” she asked.

“That’s all me,” Gareth said, forcing a smile. “I can’t blame anyone else for that.” Then he felt the presence of the other Gareth – Bron.

“Don’t worry, lass,” Bron said. “That story stuff is all his. There’s a real passion there that I could never manage. And even as he’s getting a bit more muscle and standing up straight, he’s still thinking of you.” Bron grinned. “He hasn’t noticed the interest of the other lasses.”

Carli went scarlet. “I can hear the difference,” she said, battling for her composure. “I can tell.”

Gareth fought to speak. “I don’t need to talk about any love life,” he forced out.

Bron chuckled. “It’s always good to be clear about intentions,” he said. “Violet is a nature spirit from a long ago. We were… We were very close once. And I think she hasn’t had enough company recently.”

“So when you spent the weekend, you were catching up?” Carli said, still scarlet.

“In a manner of speaking,” Bron said. “I’m sorry, Gareth, I shouldn’t have indulged, but it’s hard for me too. I’m finding my way around.”

“Who are you?” Gareth asked.

“I was a warrior, a long, long time ago,” Bron said. “I’ll explain everything when we meet that Sir Dylan. Until then, you need to eat and keep up your strength. Dark days are coming.”

Gareth was aware of an emptiness in his head and sighed. “I think he’s gone,” he said to Carli. He looked at her carefully. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Hmm?” Carli looked at the chunk of fish on the end of her fork as if she had never seen anything like it before. “I think so. And when Jed was talking about monsters at that pub on Friday, they were real?”

Gareth nodded. “But it was Bron that got us all out, not me,” he said. He sighed. “I wish I had never started this,” he said. “But it is what it is.” He managed a smile. “Why don’t we enjoy our food, ignore the concerned looks that we’re getting from the barstaff and try and nail down that Instagram idea. That has to be worth a look.”

Carli answered his smile with a strained smile of her own. “If you can get it to work,” she said. “It will take some doing.”

“I can do that,” Gareth said, his smile broadening as he pushed the memory of Sir Dylan to one side. “I’ll get it sorted.”

Carli stared as they parked opposite Kirkstall Abbey. “When I first came to Leeds, I didn’t expect to find a genuine medieval Cistercian monastery in the centre of the city,” she said.

“It’s not quite the centre,” Gareth said as got out and opened the car door for her.

Carli had been staring blankly at the abbey and jumped a little before smiling and getting out. “Thanks,” she said. “It looks different at night. And it’s almost the centre. It’s surrounded by houses.”

Gareth grinned. “I never really notice it,” he said.

Carli shivered and allowed Gareth to lead her across the road and into the abbey grounds. “It’s too dark and quiet,” she said.

Gareth was carefully looking around. “I don’t like using my phone as a torch,” he said. “It runs the battery down. I should have brought the torch from the car.”

Carli swallowed. “We can use my phone for now,” she said, her voice strained.

“Do you want to wait in the car?” Gareth asked. “Or there are plenty of taxis around that can get you back to the mill. You don’t have to come here.”

“I think I do,” Carli said.

Gareth looked down at her set face. Something was going on, but he had no idea what. “This way,” he said. “I think I can see a light in the main building.”

He stayed protectively close to Carli as they walked along the paths and then over the grass to the entrance to the nave. The barred gate was swinging open and a glimmer of light shone in the depths. “Be careful where you step,” he warned Carli as he led the way inside.

Sir Dylan was waiting halfway down the stone flagged building. The ruined windows let in a little light with the sound of traffic, but the shadows were pooling deep in the corners. Gareth carefully guided Carli with a reassuring arm lightly around her shoulders until they finally stood in front of Sir Dylan. He was standing next to a small camping lamp and his shadowed eyes were watchful.

“I need to speak to Bron,” Sir Dylan said.

Gareth groaned as he could feel the familiar sensation of being pushed aside. Bron slid his arm away from Carli and stepped a little to one side as he stared hard at Sir Dylan. Even after all the exercise and changes in diet, Gareth was still slight compared to the massive, muscular shape of Sir Dylan, but it was Sir Dylan that stepped back. “Why did you need to see Carli?” Bron demanded.

“If she’s spending time with you then she needs to be aware of what is going on,” Sir Dylan said. “Your hands, they’re…”

Carli squeaked. “You’re a vampire!” she cried.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sir Dylan snapped. “But this is interesting.”

“It’s the mark of the Defender,” Bron said, turning his hands in front of them. A slight, glimmering glow spread over them and cast a faint light around him. “It was how we knew who the Defender was. Once a year we passed through the spring near the ford and it showed us who was chosen.”

“They’re called Paladins now,” Sir Dylan said. “They are the defenders, the ones who step between the normals and non-normals. They glow like that when they are in holy areas. A lot of non-normals can’t come here. Too many saints were buried at Kirkstall.” He looked at Carli. “It’s okay,” he said. “It means that he’s more likely to defend you if there’s trouble.” He frowned. “But it’s interesting that it’s only there with Bron and not Gareth.”

“I was a Defender, a paladin, long ago,” Bron said quietly. “I fought the wolf kin and the boggarts and the dark spirits and protected my village. Then an elfen, a nature spirit, enchanted the Orache Stone. It…” Bron stared for a moment. “It possessed the lead of a wolf kin pack, werewolves, and it drove him mad. It eats souls for power. It doesn’t kill the poor creature that’s ravaged, just leaves them without a soul and it takes their mind until someone else slaughters it and takes the stone. But it gives power. The elfen was malevolent because the stone will take more and more of a soul but give more and more power. As it grants more power, it takes more of the soul and the owner falls into madness. There is perhaps a line where you can get a lot of power but stop just short of losing your sanity.” Bron smiled grimly. “But that’s impossible to judge. I managed to get it away from the mad wolf kin – werewolf – that held it but…” Bron grinned. “I died from my wounds within a month.” His grin twisted. “It wasn’t pleasant. But from what Violet said this weekend, there are a pack of strays in the Dales.” He spread his hands out in bewilderment. “I can’t keep up with these new ways of describing things.”

Sir Dylan turned to Carli. “Most werewolves aren’t a threat,” he said. “They live in packs, keep good order and don’t bother anyone. Then you have what they call strays, that is, lone werewolves. They seem to go a little crazy outside the pack structure. Some keep their heads down but without others of their own around them they can get feral. When they get feral, they get dangerous.”

“I never really saw much of that,” Bron said. “They were all bloody dangerous in my day.”

Sir Dylan shrugged. “From what Violet said, a few feral strays have been banding together. There’s one calling himself Fang, previously known as Josiah Carruthers, who’s already a known problem.” He frowned. “If it had been any other territory, the local pack would sort them out, but Mark Davies, their leader, is having a tough time.”

Bron looked coldly at Sir Dylan. “People could have died on Friday,” he said. “It wasn’t pretty. Everyone has tough times, but if you can’t do your duty then you stand aside and let those who can get the job done take your place.”

“How bad can a few strays be?” Sir Dylan said. “I can have word with Mark, but I have a lot going on. He’s going back and forward to hospital with his wife and her cancer treatments, and I’ve got my hands full with just the day to day stuff. We’ve had elfen scammers and drugged up vampires and…”

“I may have been away for a while,” Bron said. “But I’m not a fool. Those werewolves meant trouble. And if one of them have got hold of the Orache Stone, it won’t be a few strays, it will be a whole village rampaging. And I don’t know how many you think of as a few, but there could be as many as a dozen and that isn’t a small pack.”

Sir Dylan looked at him sceptically. “Are you sure about those numbers?” he asked. “Most strays can’t work with more than one or two, especially if they’ve spent any time going feral.”

“Someone has dug up the Orache Stone,” Bron said. “And it has the power to grant leadership. Damn you, it’s dangerous! Especially if there are numbers.”

Sir Dylan looked at him for a long, tense moment, then nodded. “The pubs are still open,” he said. “Let’s go visit this Iron Sickle.”

Invitation Accepted Chapter Six

Sir Dylan never felt entirely comfortable in Lord Marius’ pocket domain under Quarry Hill in the centre of Leeds. He was too aware that he wasn’t exactly in the real, human, normal world and that the wide mansion and sweeping gardens were artificial illusions that hung on the whim of an elfen – a crazed, psychopathic, unpredictable, unreasonable elfen. Still, it could be worse. He had heard horror stories from other parts of the UK and there were definitely worse elfen than Lord Marius.

He sat at the polished table in the small council chamber and shifted uneasily in his seat. Elfen were the old elves and fairies, the ones that stole children, blighted crops and lured travellers into marshes. He had never got much sense out of them, but Lord Marius was as near to reasonable as they were going to get. He wasn’t keen on boggarts either. They were ridiculously strong, violent and lacked all impulse control. He’d seen boggarts throw cars at each other for fun. Some of the most feared loan sharks and drug lords were boggarts. Phil Neston wasn’t too bad, though, when it came down to it. He wasn’t bothering with a glamour as he across the table from Sir Dylan and the long, fur-covered, rangy limbs were sprawled as he watched the figures around the table. He looked like a monster from a nightmare as his fangs gleamed in the soft lamplight. Appearances were deceptive, though. While Phil may be the most feared boggart in Leeds and able to keep the locals in order, he was known for keeping a cool head and taking a long view. He grew prize vegetables in his allotment in Roundhay.

Werewolves had always been a natural ally, in Sir Dylan’s experience. They were usually steady, in favour of good order and could be relied on to take a sensible view and not rock the boat. The few strays and mutts that caused trouble on the fringes rarely reached the attention of the local paladin or Knights Templar because a pack dealt with problems in its own, often scarily savage, way. So why was the usually steady pack leader the least stable at this meeting? Mark Davis looked haunted and hollow eyed as he sat at the table, staring blankly into space.

“Sir Dylan, are you sure of this?” Lord Marius asked.

Sir Dylan nodded. “I went with them to The Iron Sickle and it was bad,” he said. He looked across at the werewolf. “I had to use silver, Mark. I’m sorry.”

Mark barely looked up. “If it was necessary, then you did right,” he said.

“How is your wife doing?” Phil asked gently.

Mark shivered. “At least the chemo has finished,” he said. “It’s just radiotherapy now. And she’s responding well.”

“That’s good,” Phil said. “And they can do so much with modern medicine these days, even for non-normals.”

Mark nodded. “But it’s because she wasn’t born in fur,” he said. “I converted her but it left her vulnerable. Sometimes this type of cancer hits those not born in fur hardest.”

“You can’t blame yourself,” Phil said with kind firmness. “Sometimes stuff just happens. Listen, I know that you want to spend time with your wife, and I know that Claire is relying on you. Why don’t you leave this to Rhys? He can take the pack, have a sniff around and get it all sorted.”

Mark managed a glare. “Rhys isn’t going to take them anywhere because I’m the leader of the pack, not him.”

Lord Marius smiled thinly. “You’re the leader for now,” he said.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Mark snapped.

“I told you about this spirit, didn’t I?” Sir Dylan said. “Let me see if I can repeat at least part of what he said. Something like – if you’re not dealing with these strays and you’re not letting anyone else deal with the strays, what are you good for?”

Mark lunged at Sir Dylan, but Phil was ready for him. “Take it easy,” Phil said, blocking the werewolf. “We’re in council, not a boxing ring.”

“And he talked about the Orache Stone,” Sir Dylan said. “It’s some sort of power, but like a curse. It seems to pull the crazies together because when we went to The Iron Sickle, we barely got out in one piece. There’s something holding those mutts together – and I’m using the word properly, Mark. They are strays, they are druggies, they are drinkers, they are bad, bad people. If they get out of control, it’s going to be nasty. Are you going to do something, or do I have to call the Knights Templar in. I can’t deal with it on my own. I could barely manage to get out of there with Bron as my backup.”

“Tell me about Bron,” Phil said. “He’s just some spirit that ended up with a time share in the skinny body of an office junior, right?”

Sir Dylan looked straight into Phil’s deep, dark eyes. “Bron scares me,” he said. “He’s put muscle on the lad over the last month, but there’s still not much of him. It doesn’t matter. He’s got years of experience, he’s fast, he’s clever and he will never, ever give up. I wouldn’t take him on in a scrap. And I’m telling you, Phil, that he’d take on a boggart without hesitation – and I wouldn’t bet against him. He fights nasty and it’s what got us out of The Iron Sickle.” He looked back to Mark. “Bron killed three of those werewolves,” he said. “He slit their throats with a silver knife and he didn’t even flinch. If the numbers had been more even, he would have taken out more. He did you a favour. You should be nice to him.”

“The Orache Stone?” Lord Marius said. He stood slowly and started pacing. “You are sure that is what he said?”

Sir Dylan looked at him narrowly. “You know about it?”

Lord Marius held up a hand and for a moment a brief blue glow enfolded him before he nodded. Suddenly he looked older. “Bron,” he said. “The spirit’s name is Bron and he was…” Lord Marius shook his head. “You would call him a paladin now. He was mighty and feared nothing or no-one. He seduced an elfen, all those years ago, then obeyed his father and married a mortal, a normal. It was heart-breaking to see Anwen fall to pieces over it. I don’t think that she ever recovered.”

Sir Dylan exchanged an uneasy glance with Phil. “He identified himself as Bron, and Violet, from the Dales above Otley, said that they had been lovers. And when we were in Kirkstall Abbey, you could see the glow of the paladin on him, except it was only when Bron was in control. When it was Gareth Peterson, there was nothing.” Sir Dylan hesitated. “Could he be a paladin for Leeds?”

Lord Marius shook his head. “He was only ever the defender of the small area around Otley and north to Norwood and Addingham. But he was fierce.” He looked hard at Mark. “If you don’t take care of these strays, then he will.”

“He has no right!” Mark snapped.

“I think that he has every right if you won’t step up,” Sir Dylan snapped back.

Lord Marius slapped his hand hard on the table. “If the Orache Stone is back, then we all have to take action. We can’t be caught by it.”

“Is it really that bad?” Sir Dylan said. “I mean, it’s brought order to some strays, and I was glad to get out of there, but how bad can it be?”

“Last time it was war,” Lord Marius said. “The Orache stone ran through the wolfkind pack, even through those who should have been better. It brought blood and fire to all the villages and ripped and tore the domain of Lord Skyrack. There was a reason he forbade all to mention the stone. He didn’t want any mortal, any normal, trying to find it.” His eyes were haunted as he looked around the table. “It was a dark time. The elfen who created it, he did out of malice.” Lord Marius frowned. “I can’t remember his name, I think it was taken from us all by Lord Skyrack. I know that Lord Skyrack tortured him for a year and a day as a warning before killing him. And many thought that the elfen had escaped lightly.” There was a long silence.

“Bloody hell,” Phil said eventually. “How did you deal with it?”

“We needed a defender,” Lord Marius said softly. “And Bron answered the call. He fought the last wolfkind that possessed the Orache Stone and killed her, and was the only one with the strength of will to resist picking it up. He died in pain and the Orache Stone was buried with him. Anwen cast enchantments over it, but they must have faded. I think that she is fading.”

“I think she had a new lease of life with Bron last weekend,” Sir Dylan said dryly. “But while I wouldn’t turn my back on Bron if I thought he was after me, he’s still just a skinny kid. The will might be there, but he can’t take on a rogue pack.”

“I’ll deal with them,” Mark said abruptly.

“Have you been listening to a word that’s been said?” Phil asked.

Mark pushed himself to his feet. “This is a werewolf problem and I will provide a werewolf solution,” he said. “Excuse me.” They watched him stalk out.

Phil looked at Lord Marius. “You need to get him back,” he said.

Lord Marius was still pale. “I have always allowed the werewolves their boundaries,” he said. “They have been loyal, capable defenders and good counsellors. I can’t get in his way.”

“He doesn’t know what’s going on,” Phil said.

Sir Dylan nodded. “And from the sound of it, he’ll get taken by the damned stone as well.”

“That is what happened before,” Lord Marius said. He took a deep breath. “Sir Dylan, call on all the aid you can. Tell them that Lord Marius is rousing Leeds to war. Tell them to bring silver.”

Phil nodded. “I’ll get the word out to my lot as well,” he said.

“And I will meet with Bron,” Lord Marius said. “It will be good to see him after all this time.”

Carli smiled at Surjit. “I can’t believe how this day is racing by,” she said. “I’ve been unpacking and I’ve finally got to the colour charts and I keep forgetting to bring them in from the car.”

“Do you need a hand?” Surjit said. “It’s quiet here at the moment and I could do with stretching my legs.”

“Thanks, that would be a help,” Carli said. “They aren’t heavy, but there’s a few boxes.”

“Of course, you moved up from Birmingham, didn’t you?” Surjit said. “Have you found somewhere nice yet?”

Carli wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sure about that,” she said. “I’m in a grotty flat near Elland Road, but it’s a start and I can find somewhere now that I can look around properly.”

Surjit followed her out to the neat Ford. “So, you and Gareth then?” she said. “Are you dating or what?”

Carli looked at her and shook her head. “Gossip – the only thing known to science that travels faster than light,” she said with a grin. She glanced a little shyly up at the offices. “I don’t know. He bought me dinner last night, but we were mostly working.”

Surjit looked appalled. “He took you for dinner and all you did was talk about work!” she said. “That’s awful! I thought he would be better than that.”

“It wasn’t meant to be a date, really,” Carli said, blushing a little, “but it was…” she thought about meeting the burly Sir Dylan and all the oddness that went with it. “I think if it was a proper date then it would be different.”

“Tell me!” Surjit said with a grin as Carli opened the car.

“He’s sort of old fashioned,” Carli said. “I mean, he opened the car door for me and that sort of stuff. I’m not used to that.”

“He’s always been polite,” Surjit said. “I mean, he always says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when I’m handing over the post and stuff, but these last few months, he’s been something else.”

Carli felt the blush growing. “He’s been very sweet,” she said. “And the ideas he’s got are amazing. It’s really fed back into some ideas for designs, and that’s why I need the shades.” She started piling small boxes into Surjit’s arms. “I wish I lived somewhere nicer. I would definitely ask him to come and do some work at my flat.”

“You wouldn’t!” Surjit crowed in delight. “You should just go for it.”

Carli shook her head. “Not unless I was somewhere nicer,” she said. “I mean, what would he think?”

“From what I heard, he doesn’t live anywhere fancy either,” Surjit said.

“And where exactly is that?” a voice said behind them.

For a moment the women froze, then Carli slowly turned around. The man standing so confidently between them and the door to the mill was tall, lean and had a mocking smile on his dirty face. It looked like blood smeared on his thin jogging bottoms and his hoodie was ragged. Carli swallowed. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean, where does the boy wonder live?” the man asked. “I’d like a word with him.”

“Who are you?” Surjit whispered.

“You can call me sir,” he said. “But you can tell the lad that my name is Fang and I’m waiting here for him.” He glanced at Carli. “I’ll wait over there behind the bin store and out of sight of all those interfering cameras. This girlfriend can stay with me to catch his interest, and I won’t lay a paw on her until after our conversation – if he’s quick. So run, girlie, and fetch the boy wonder now.”

Carlie caught Surjit’s eye. “Don’t say his name,” she said. “Just go and get him.” She could see the panic rising in Surjit. “You can do this. You can keep your cool and take the message now.” Surjit nodded, turned and ran into the mill.

Carli stumbled behind Fang as he dragged her around the corner. “You are going to be in so much trouble,” she gasped.

“Nope,” Fang said. “I’m just tidying up some loose ends.” He grinned humourlessly at her and licked his lips. “We’ll deal with that skinny boyfriend of yours and then I’ll show you a whole new world. One that you’ll never want to leave.”

“Surjit will call the police, you know,” Carli said, struggling to sound fierce. “You won’t be able to get away with anything.”

“The police will have to learn,” Fang said. He leaned towards Carli and her stomach churned at the stink of his breath. “I’ve got the power,” he said. “I listened to the pup that slept on top of the barrow and I dug it out. I’m the pack leader now. I’m in charge.” He leaned back. “I’ve got the stone of power. And I’m feeling a lack of bitches, if you know what I mean.”

“No,” Carli said. “I’m not available.”

Without warning, Fang backhanded her across the face. “You will learn to be available,” he snarled. He looked up. “But here’s lover boy. Nothing like a quick snack to get you in the mood, not that there’s much meat on him.”

Carli fought back a sob. This was Gareth, striding across the car park in just his office clothes. He wasn’t even wearing a tie, just a thin jacket over his shirt. She stilled for a moment. He hadn’t been wearing a jacket earlier. It looked like an old one that didn’t fit properly across the shoulders. She caught Fang’s suspicious glance. “Don’t you dare touch him.”

Fang laughed. “What are you going to do? Are you going to knit all over me?” He chucked and worked his shoulders. “Get on your knees and face the wall.”

“No!” Carli cried. Gareth was almost here and she was desperate to distract Fang. “And you can’t make me.”

Fang grabbed her by the hair. “I said, on your knees facing that wall!”

Carli cried out as he swung her around but she saw Gareth approaching and kicked hard at Fang’s knee. He swore and backhanded her again. She crashed against the wall, dazed from his blow and staring at Gareth with his jacket now wrapped around his arm and a knife in front of him.

“Get away from her,” snapped Bron. Carli recognised the sound of the spirit and relief flowed through her. She pushed herself a little clear of the wall and looked around for anything she could use to help.

“Who the hell are you?” Fang asked. He stood a little away from Carli, working his shoulders and sizing Bron up. “You walk into my bar and cause trouble. You interfere with my sweet date. And you walk out of that mill like you own me. Bad mistake.”

Bron didn’t answer but darted in towards Fang, swinging high at his face. Fang snarled and snapped his growing teeth at Bron who caught the attempted bite easily on his jacket-wrapped arm. Bron tangled the jacket around Fang’s head and stepped closer, slicing into him with the knife. Fang howled and fell back, tearing the jacket. “You’ve brought silver, you bastard!” Fang yelled. He glanced behind Bron to where Syed and Jed were leading out the lads from the warehouse and the factory floor, yelling wildly. “I’ll rip your throat out right now!” Fang growled, leaking blood from the slash across his chest and blocking Bron’s swing.

“I don’t think so,” said a new voice. Lord Marius seemed to appear from nothing, standing between Bron and Fang. He held out a hand and the air shimmered between them. “I am the Prince here.”

“Not for much longer,” Fang growled, pulling out a small stone and pushing it back at Lord Marius.

Lord Marius swore loud and long as he skidded backwards. He struggled to keep his feet before gesturing again at Fang.

Fang snarled and his eyes glowed red as he held the stone in front of him. Bron took the chance and stabbed upwards but Fang flinched back, falling hard against the wall next to Carli. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he gasped.

“Not here,” Lord Marius said. “And you will leave when I permit it!”

Fang flung a hand out at Lord Marius and the air exploded. Steam swirled and rolled over Bron, Carli and Lord Marius who were thrown back by the blast. When the steam dissipated, Fang was gone.

Bron shook his head to try and clear the ringing in his ears. He walked slowly to Carli who was wide eyed and hunched against the wall. “Are you okay, lass?” he asked gently. Bron looked at Lord Marius. “I have work to do,” he said flatly. “I’ll meet you here at six in the evening.” He turned back to Carli and gently helped her to stand. As Syed rushed up Bron nodded. “I’m glad that you have our backs,” he said. “It should be okay, but I’m taking Carli home.”

“He’s from The Iron Sickle, isn’t he?” Syed asked.

Bron shrugged as he carefully took Carli’s arm to steer her to his car. “He’s probably headed back there now,” he said. “But I think he’s been frightened off.”

“I shall speak with your master, Luke Ossett,” Lord Marius said as he dusted himself down. “He knows me.” He looked at Syed, Jed and the rest of them. “This place will be protected.” He glanced back at Bron. “It will be very well protected indeed.”

Chapter Seven

Rhys tapped on Mark’s office door. “Are you there, boss?”

“Come in,” Mark said. He ran a tired hand over his face and waved Rhys to a seat. “Did you get away from the new site okay?”

“Everything’s going fine,” Rhys said, sitting down. “The wiring is finally up to code on the new build and the bathroom rebuilds at the hotel are going as planned. The business is doing fine. You can concentrate on Claire. How is she doing?”

Mark grimaced. “She had a bad night,” he said. “And I don’t think that she’s being honest about how much she’s hurting.”

“I’m sorry, boss,” Rhys said. “I wish there was something we could do.”

“The world doesn’t stop, though, does it,” Mark said. “You’ve kept the business on track, and I’m grateful. But now we have some pack business. I want you to let the lads know that we need to take down a pack of strays near Otley.”

Rhys frowned. “I’ve been hearing some stuff about that,” he said. “And a few of the lads were wondering when we were going up there. They need dealing with.”

Mark scowled. “What are they saying? That I can’t keep up with stuff? I’m still the pack leader, and I make the decisions.” He glared at the younger werewolf opposite him. “So I’m leading everyone tonight. We’ll have a sniff around, put down any strays that won’t behave and then get a few beers at the clubhouse.”

Rhys looked at his uncle thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should lead them,” he said. “If Claire’s not well, then you should be with her at home.”

“Claire is going to be staying with the women at the clubhouse,” Mark said. “Lord Marius has been talking about some sort of stone, I don’t know. He said that it had been pulled out of a barrow. The elfen are always getting their panties in a twist over stuff, but I want the women and cubs to be safe.”

Rhys searched for the right words. “Boss, you know that we’re loyal to you, and I don’t want to show disrespect, but you’re not the same as you were. I mean, you’ve been caught up with Claire and everything,” he said. “You’ve got run down and you’re not getting any younger.”

“I can still knock the fur off you, or any other cub in this pack,” Mark snarled. “And don’t you forget it! Do you think that I’m going to step aside for some whelp that barely knows up from down just because I’ve got some issues. I’m still the head of this pack and this trip will be a good chance to remind people. Tell everyone that we’re meeting at the clubhouse and that we’ll be leaving at 7pm – sharp!”

Mark watched his nephew leave and then waited for a moment. His excellent hearing picked up the sound of Rhys’ car leaving the car park and nodded to himself. After checking that his wife was asleep, he let his secretary know that he was going out and then climbed into his well-kept Range Rover. He didn’t trust the Knights Templar, and he wasn’t going to let Lord Marius push into a pack matter. But there were other people he could ask. He drove up to the speed limit but in complete control and, after a quick stop at the supermarket, was soon pulling up at the bottom of the lane that led to Violet’s cottage.

Violet looked like she had been crying when she opened the door. “I’m not feeling very well today,” she said. “Perhaps you should come back later.”

“I’ve brought gifts,” Mark said, holding up a cloth bag. “I’ve brought Muscovado sugar, vodka and a plant.” He handed over a rather bedraggled supermarket African violet, followed by the bag.

Violet looked at him warily. “I suppose you can come in,” she said. “But I don’t know if I can grant any boons.” Her expression softened a little. “But I may have some teas that could help Claire. They won’t cure anything,” she hastened to add. “But they may make her feel a little better.”

Mark managed a strained smile. “That’s appreciated,” he said. “But I think you can grant boons. I want to hear about the Orache Stone.”

Violet stared at him, frozen on the doorstep. She took a deep breath and then stepped back to let Mark in. “Come in and sit down,” she said. “I’ll make you a cup of tea without obligation. I need a moment to think.”

Mark followed her in and looked around. The cottage was darker and dustier than he remembered, but it was still warm and calm. He sat in a comfortable armchair near the fire and leant back against the crocheted throw. “Thank you,” he said.

Violet held a finger to her lips and then bustled around, swinging the kettle over the fire in the hearth and then bustling around with mugs and teabags. She sniffed the pack of muscovado sugar and shivered in a type of pleasure before putting it on a shelf in an alcove. The large bottle of vodka was quickly slipped into a pail of cold water and the plant was tenderly misted with water and placed in a brighter corner. Then she poured the hot water into the mugs and, after adding milk to Mark’s mug, set them down on the cluttered table next to Mark. “Wait there one moment,” she said. “I’ll be straight back.” Then she vanished.

Mark waited as patiently as he could for the next fifteen minutes, sipping the excellent tea and enjoying the crackle of the fire. He knew Violet couldn’t be rushed. She’d been fading for a while now, he knew, but she could give him the answers he needed. He looked up as she returned and was shocked at how pale she looked. “Are you okay?” he asked, standing up.

Violet nodded. “I’m fine and I have made some choices,” she said. “The Orache Stone was a great evil. A truly desperate evil and the elfen who made it was tortured for a year and a day before he died. And that was the right thing,” she added. “There was a lot of blood spilled. But things were different then. It’s true that the wolfkind, the werewolves, were the ones who had the stone, and I think that it calls most to them.” She sank down on her chair and gazed at the fire. “The Orache Stone grants great power and authority. Lord Skyrack took the name of its creator, but I remember something of them. They knew so much and it was, I think, perhaps as much of a mistake as it was malice.” She sighed softly and took a small sip of her tea. “The Orache Stone grants power, that much I remember. And it can bring truly great power. In return, it takes its owner’s soul, scrap by scrap and sending them gradually insane.”

“It sounds more like a curse than a blessing,” Mark said as he sat back down again.

“It was,” Violet said softly. For a moment her face twisted as she struggled to recall events three thousand years old. “It wasn’t given to the pack leader,” she said. “But to a wolf named…” She looked at Mark and he could see the blue haze in her eyes. “They were called Verak, and they had always been fretful. They were never strong enough to challenge for the leadership but always envious of power. They used the power of the Orache Stone and took the pack in a bloody fight. But it didn’t stop there. Because of the hunger for power, Verak took over a neighbouring pack as well, in Leodis, where you are now, and were talking about taking over the villages of men. But the Orache Stone took too much of their soul and they went mad. A woman named…” Once again Violet paused. “I think that she was called Ina or Ena, stole it from Verak as he foamed at his mouth. She also wanted power. She took many lovers and she ripped the throats out of any that opposed her. The stone’s power grew, and Ina’s mind failed and her daughter took it, and I don’t know if I ever knew her name. But before she had a chance to truly lose her soul, Bron came.” Violet shivered. “He gave her a chance to give up the stone, and when she didn’t, he killed her.”

Mark slowly and carefully moved over to place a gentle hand on Violet’s shoulder. “I can see that you loved Bron.”

Violet’s mouth twisted. “I loved him, I always loved him, even after I thought that he was dead. But he turned away from me. He was faithful to her even though he didn’t love her. He stayed away from me. Then he died slowly.” A tear slid down Violet’s cheek.

“I’m so sorry,” Mark said. “I didn’t mean to bring back painful memories.”

“And now that he is back in that new, fresh, vigorous body, he is holding back because Gareth has eyes for a mortal, a normal,” Violet said bitterly. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I wouldn’t love him so much if he didn’t have so much honour in him, so much steel in his soul.” She shook her head and forced a smile. “But enough of me and my old and dusty sorrows. I may be fading but I can still make a few guesses about your request. You want to know if the Orache Stone can heal Claire.”

“I could never hide anything from you,” Mark said.

Violet patted his cheek. “I always had a soft spot for a werewolf,” she said. She looked thoughtful, then away and into the fire. “I don’t know if it can heal Claire,” she said. “But I know it has more power than the elfen intended. And I’m not sure about their intention.” She leaned forward and put another log on the fire, watching it settle into the embers. “The people who held the Orache Stone before only wanted power. You have power, and you only want healing for Claire. You may be able to turn the power to healing.”

“You think that there’s even a chance?” Mark asked.

Violet nodded. “I can hear how desperate you are. There is a chance, but no guarantee. And you could still lose your soul, your mind, if you don’t stop soon enough. It’s a lot of risk for no certainty.” She looked at him. “But you would do anything for Claire, wouldn’t you? Just like Bron would for me, before he obeyed his father. If you get the Orache Stone, I’ll help you redirect the power. Away from Lord Marius, I’m probably the only one that can do this.” She held up an imperative finger. “But you must do everything you can to get Carli Sykes out of Bron’s life. Get one of your young dogs to seduce her, get her compromised. Break her car so she can’t meet him or sabotage her job.” Violet turned and looked hard into Mark’s eyes. “If necessary, kill her. Because the deal is that you get Claire, and I get Bron. Do you understand this bargain?”

Mark met her gaze without flinching. “For Claire,” he said. “I understand.”

Invitation Accepted Chapter Eight

Image from Unsplash, taken by Jerry Klein

Gareth looked up at the large, rambling house. The setting sun was blood red as it sank behind the hills and there was a chill in the air. “She’s a vampire?” he said.

“Yes, but she’s not a bad vampire,” Sir Dylan said. “I explained. She has arrangements, no-one dies, no-one is fed on without consent and no-one is converted without some sort of oversight.”

“She drinks people’s blood,” Gareth said.

“She is what she is,” Sir Dylan said. “Don’t worry, she’s mostly okay.”

“Just mostly?” Bron chipped in.

“I hate it when you’re both speaking,” Sir Dylan said. “Listen, just be respectful and don’t let her take liberties.” He ran a tired hand over his face. “I’m going to have to get someone else in to explain stuff.”

“That would be a help,” Gareth said. “Especially as I’m not actually a defender, Bron is.”

“It’s a paladin,” Sir Dylan grumbled. “Anyway, if there’s a paladin then there’s a prince. The non-normals usually sort it out between themselves, but Mary Dutton is old, powerful, knows everyone and is marginally possible to deal with. At least, we’ve not had to deal with her much.”

“And you’re as much the defender, I mean, paladin as me,” Bron said. “You’re getting there.”

Sir Dylan looked at them with narrowed eyes. “What does that mean?” he asked suspiciously.

“Shall we meet the blood sucker then?” Bron said, switching subjects.

“Don’t call her that,” Sir Dylan said wearily. “And she’s in a relationship with a werewolf called Tyler.”

“What’s he like?” Gareth asked.

Sir Dylan shrugged. “I’ve never met him. I heard that he works as a carpenter and on building sites. He’s not part of a pack, but he’s never caused trouble.”

“A stray then,” Bron said thoughtfully. “Like those in The Iron Sickle.”

“Not exactly,” Sir Dylan said. He climbed out of the car and took a deep breath of the bracing air. “She’s expecting us.”

“Oh good,” Gareth said.

Bron took the measure of the man who opened the door. Like most werewolves, he was well built and in shape, with short, greying hair and sharp brown eyes. He would be unlikely to start trouble but would be difficult to deal with if trouble started. “We’re here to see Lady Mary,” Bron said. “You must be Tyler.”

“I can’t wait for you to tell Mary that she’s a lady,” Tyler said. “Come in.”

He led them down a narrow, tiled hall and into a wide reception room. It didn’t look much like Gareth’s idea of a vampire’s drawing room. Instead it was minimalist. There were groups of plants around in the corners, and the grey and blue sofas were plentiful, broad and soft, with throws layered over the backs. However the rest of the room was bare. A single print was hung on each cream coloured wall and, apart from a luxurious thick rug in front of the woodstove, the floor was immaculately polished bare wood. Heavy grey curtains framed the wide windows and their spectacular views towards Ilkley. The woman drawing them was tall and slim with sleek blonde hair elegantly styled in a twist. She smiled as they came in.

“So you’re the people who want to make me a prince,” she said. “Take a seat. Would you like coffee?”

“If there’s a paladin, there has to be a prince,” Sir Dylan said, sinking onto one of the sofas.

“And this corner of the world is somewhat neglected,” she said. She held a hand out to Gareth who had remained standing. “I’m Mary Dutton, apparently the new prince.” Her eyes narrowed. “And you are not exactly what you seem.”

Gareth shook the cool, dry hand. “I’m Gareth and I went to look for a warrior spirit to be more assertive at work. I accidentally summoned the spirit of Bron, a Bronze Age defender, into me. It’s been complicated.”

“And I’m Bron,” added Bron. “I’m the defender, although Gareth has potential. And I suppose I was around to be summoned because someone disturbed my burial and brought out the Orache Stone. It sounds like it reached the pack of strays at The Iron Sickle. They need to be stopped.”

“And the first thing I need to do if I’m a prince is something unpleasant against my own kind,” Mary said. “That seems somewhat unfair.”

“Do you think that your kind won’t suffer if these strays get out of hand?” Bron asked. “The stone sends the owner mad, but they scramble for power as they go there. It’s not pretty. I remember it from the first time.”

“And are you sure that it’s still the same?” Mary asked. “After all, it’s been a while.”

“Have you been to The Iron Sickle recently?” Bron asked. “I was lucky to get out of there alive.”

Sir Dylan remembered his visit with Bron and suppressed a shudder. Bron’s calculated and vicious skills had got them out of there alive. “It’s true, Lady Mary,” he said. “The strays from the area are banding together and it’s not healthy.” He turned to Tyler. “I know that you’ve been keeping an eye on some of the pups and strays in the area. There isn’t a strong pack around here. What have you heard?”

Tyler looked at them thoughtfully, then at Mary. “It’s the idiot that calls himself Fang,” he said. “He’s dragging the strays together and it hasn’t been pretty.” He looked hard at Bron. “I heard that you caused some damage at The Iron Sickle.”

“It was me or them,” Bron said. “And I’d do it again, every time. They were mad dogs, Tyler, and you know it. It wasn’t a punch up or a bit of a scuffle, it was war and kill or be killed.”

A silence ran around the room and the tick of the mantel clock echoed. Mary stood. “I can’t interfere with The Iron Sickle and this Fang immediately. Lord Marius was in touch with me and Mark and his pack are going to deal with the matter. At this moment, it’s completely out of my hands. However, if the matter isn’t resolved soon then I shall have to deal with it myself.” She glanced at Tyler. “I daresay that I’ll have to make a lot of changes in the area. I’ll be getting in touch with all the local non-normals and get an idea of how they feel. I’ll also be in touch with Lord Richard, over in Hebden Bridge, as he is a vampire that had to take on a domain unexpectedly.” She nodded at Gareth. “Take off your shirt.”

Gareth blushed wildly. “What?”

“The lady wants to see our mark,” Bron said. “It’s just business,” he added with unusual tact as Tyler glowered at him. He shrugged off the battered leather jacket and started unbuttoning his shirt. “Now, if she talks about our trousers, that’s something else.”

“Keep a respectful tongue in your head,” Tyler snarled. “There’s all this talk of paladins and there’s a shift in the area around the Chevin, but that’s not proof.” He leant a little closer. “And I may have to scratch a bit, just to make sure that it’s real.”

Bron met his glare without flinching. “You could try,” he said. “But it would be a shame to get your blood all over this pretty room.”

“Gentleman!” Mary snapped. “Get the shirt off.” She prowled around Bron as he coolly removed the shirt and handed it to Sir Dylan. “Someone’s been hitting the gym, I can tell. The body’s shaping up nicely, Bron, but you need to stop getting hit.” Mary shook her head at him. “So many bruises.” She peered closer. “Hmm, two crossed swords. I’ve never heard of that.”

“What?” Sir Dylan said. “There was only one a few days ago.” He edged politely past Mary and peered at the mark. Instead of one indistinct sword, there were two of them, dark and crossing on Gareth’s shoulder.

“There are two of us,” Bron said, twitching the shirt out of Sir Dylan’s hands and sliding into it. “We’ll be going, then, Lady Mary. But you’ll know how to contact us. And take care. The Orache Stone is not a toy or a game. If I were you, I’d make sure that I had my people in fighting fettle.”

“You may make a habit of taking over other people,” Mary said. “But you haven’t taken over in me. I’ll make my own decisions, and, if necessary, I’ll be in touch. I’m sure that you can see yourself out.”

Gareth and Sir Dylan left in silence and climbed into the car. Rain started to fall as the light faded and the car seemed chilled. “Well, that could have gone worse,” Sir Dylan said.

Rhys stalked around the building site. He’d managed to placate the client, excusing the absent builders with the excuse of problems with suppliers, but he wasn’t happy. This build had been going pretty well, despite the usual snags, and the delays this was causing stung. They had strutted into The Iron Sickle like they owned the bar and had been badly mauled. It was one of the elementary rules – overconfidence was punished.

Rhys nodded to Tim. “That’s looking good,” he said, nodding at the plastering. “You’ll have it finished in no time.”

“But I won’t have as much finished as I’ll be waiting on Joe and Josh,” Tim said. “They were really badly hurt.” He slapped the float onto the plaster. “And I know I shouldn’t say it, but the boss got it wrong.”

“If you know you shouldn’t say it then you don’t say it,” Rhys said evenly.

“I’ve got to say something or I’ll burst,” Tim said. “What about Will? He’s a mess.”

Rhys sympathised with the young werewolf. “Well, we’ll know better next time,” he said. “And there has to be a next time. We can’t let rabid strays like that around. The boss will work it out.”

“The boss is busy with Claire,” Tim muttered. “It’s like no-one else exists.”

“That’s enough,” Rhys said firmly. “Listen, if you finish the plastering, there’s a few bits that need tidying up over on the third floor. There’s some panelling that needs fixing. If you could do that, it would be a help.”

Tim stared at the wall. “I’m happy to do that for you,” he said. “You were right there with us and if you hadn’t got James out of there, it would have been a lot worse.”

A chill ran through Rhys. They didn’t need this sort of division in the pack. And the last thing Mark needed to worry about was the pack switching allegiance away from him. And what was worse, that sort of talk was dangerous to Tim. He put a brotherly hand on Tim’s shoulder. “We can’t talk like that, Tim,” he said. “We have to trust in the boss and stick together as a pack. I’m going over to the clubhouse later to speak with Mark and we’ll see where we go to from here. We handed out a lot of damage to them, so we need to be careful. They are hurting more than us. But Mark will know what to do and we’ll all pull together.”

Tim nodded reluctantly. “I suppose so,” he said.

“And we’re going to have to secure all the sites and keep all normals away. It could get nasty. If you could do a round up of the site before you go home, I’ll be glad of it. Just make sure that everything’s locked up and put away,” Rhys said.

“Mark was talking about everyone staying down at the clubhouse,” Tim said. “That’s the sort of thing you do when it’s war.”

Rhys could feel the uncertainty radiating from Tim. “And if it’s war, we’ll win,” he said firmly. “We’ll talk it all out, we’ll give Mark our advice and our support and we’ll stick together as a pack. That’s what we do. At least we’ll get good cooking out of it.”

Tim managed a chuckle. “Yeah, it’s always good when the wives get cooking together,” he said.

“Well then, I’ll see you there later. Now get this bit finished and the panelling done and call it a day. We can’t do much more now,” Rhys said. “And don’t worry. Remember, we’re the pack.”

Rhys’ sense of unease had grown all day and he could feel it settling between his shoulder blades as he strode into the clubhouse, nodding at the other werewolves around the entrance. Men were gathering in low voiced conversations while the cubs chased each other around the car park and the wives were setting up camp beds in corners. It was undoubtedly the right thing to do. The pack at The Iron Sickle were small and almost certainly didn’t have the reach to get to the clubhouse, what was a works club on the planning permission but was the pack headquarters and social meeting place in reality. All the single werewolves lived in the rooms upstairs, and even those who were living out were close. Rhys couldn’t remember when it had last been this full or this tense. He pushed his way through the cluttered hall, past Claire’s room and into Mark’s office.

“Sit down,” Mark barked. The slash on his face hadn’t fully healed yet and he was working a sore shoulder. “What a mess.”

Rhys kept a neutral expression. “We weren’t expecting that,” he said. “It must have been the stone.”

“Whatever it was, we got our tails singed,” Mark said. “But we’ll be better for spending time together. And I’m calling in a few favours and asking around. There’s some goblins up there that owe us for those jobs at Menston. We helped them out then so they’re helping us now. I’ve told them to keep a good distance unless they want to be chew toys, but they’re keeping an eye on things and letting me know what the movements are around The Iron Sickle.”

“Can they be trusted?” Rhys asked.

“They’ve no reason to lie,” Mark said. “Besides, we’ll take the information and check it against other stuff. And there’s other help there as well.”

“You mean from Lord Marius?” Rhys asked.

Mark shook his head. “This is a werewolf matter,” he said. “It may take a bit of time, and we can ask for help in return for favours, but we’ll keep the damned elfen out of it. And that’s why I needed to speak to you.”

Rhys looked at him warily. “How can I help?” he asked.

“You’re a dapper dog,” Mark said unexpectedly. “You seem to be able to charm the bitches. Well, you can turn that charm on for the pack.”

Rhys felt a chill run over him. “You want me to talk to someone?”

“I’ve had a normal Private Investigator make some enquiries,” Mark said. He rummaged in the drawer with his good hand and pulled out a file. “This is Carli Sykes,” he said. “She’s not a bad looking lass, and I’m sure you won’t find it a hardship. I want you to charm her.”

“You mean, get her talking to us?” Rhys said. “Is she a werewolf?”

“She’s a normal, but she’s seen Fang,” Mark said. “And what I mean is, get into her knickers. Get her fixed on you. Show her some good werewolf loving, flex the muscles and show her a good time.” He pushed another envelope towards Rhys. “There’s some expenses to start with and the key to the flat near Roundhay Park. Give her a good feed and get her drunk. If you show her some good moves then she’ll be licking your hand.” Mark glared at Rhys. “Do whatever you have to but get that bitch away from Gareth Peterson and into your bed. And that’s an order.”

“Seriously, boss? You want me to…” Rhys couldn’t believe it. “You want me to seduce her?”

“You’re good looking enough, you have bitches following you around all the time and you’re good at the smooth talk,” Mark said. “The file will tell you where to find her. The investigator was pretty thorough. Bump into her at the gym or something – whatever it takes.” Mark leaned across the desk. “Because that’s what we need to get an important favour. Bed that bitch and make sure she’s hooked on you.”

Rhys stared at the pack leader for a long moment, then picked up the files. “Okay boss,” he said.

“And start right away. Get a clean shirt on and start sniffing around. We can’t waste time,” Mark said, indifferent to Rhys’ stony face.

Rhys nodded, turned on his heel and strode out of the office.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Nine

Image from Unsplash, taken by Phil Cruz

“Have you seen the new security guard?” Surjit asked.

Carli shook her head as she hurried into reception. She leaned on the reception desk. “Do you think that they know what it is?” She asked. “I mean, all the scary stuff?”

“I don’t know,” Surjit said. “Syed told me what happened at The Iron Sickle, and I saw a bit of what happened in the car park. Something weird is definitely happening.”

Carli shivered. “I think there is,” she said. “But I think Gareth can deal with most of it.”

“You are so sweet on him,” Surjit said. “But think about it. Gareth can’t be everywhere, and he may need a hand if it gets scary.” She looked around the reception. “And Luke knows something that we don’t. I’ve been told to let in Lord Marius or Sir Dylan at any time and without question. What’s with the titles?”

“I think I’ve met Sir Dylan,” Carli said. “He doesn’t look like a ‘sir’. He looks like he could rip Gareth apart. He has tattoos on his neck and he’s built bigger than Jed. But he seemed nice enough.”

“I suppose that you can’t judge by appearances,” Surjit sighed. “I’d love to go out with someone with a ‘sir’ or a ‘lord’ in their name. As it is, I’m not even managing a ‘mr’.”

“Perhaps you’ll get a date with the security guard?” Carli said. “Is he really old?”

Surjit snorted with laughter. “He’s gorgeous,” she said. “I mean, he’s dark, with short hair which always looks good on a man. Then he’s full of muscles and there’s just something about him.” She looked at Carli and sighed. “He’s just calm. He reminds me a little of how Gareth is these days.”

“And not old?” Carli asked.

Surjit thought for a moment. “I think he’s in his thirties,” she said. “So maybe five years or more older than me. But he looks in great shape and has a lovely smile.”

“Here’s the big question,” Carli said. “Is he single?”

“I can only hope,” Surjit said. “Hang on…” She smiled professionally at the man walking into reception. “Good morning, how can I help you?”

“The name is Mark Davis,” he said. “I’m here to see Mr Luke Ossett. He should be expecting me.”

Surjit checked the computer. “Of course. If you go up now, I’ll let him know that you’re here.”

“I can take him up,” Carli said. She smiled at Mark. “This way.” She led him out of reception to the stairs. “I’m Carli Sykes and I’m the designer.” She started on the stairs, uneasily aware of Mark’s intent gaze. “The business is all under one roof from design to packaging.” They reached the top of the stairs and Carli pulled open the heavy wooden fire door. “It’s just down here,” she said as she led him past the cluster of desks in the outside office, glancing quickly over to where Gareth was sitting. Their eyes met briefly before Carli carried on. “This is it,” she said, raising her hand to rap on Luke’s door.

Mark held up his hand to stop her. “My nephew is starting today as a security guard – Rhys Davis,” he said. “I hope that you’ll make him feel welcome. He’s a bit lonely these days.”

“Everyone is welcome here,” Carli said. “It’s a good crew. But I’ll say ‘hi’ when I see him. Would you like a tea or a coffee?”

Luke stared across the desk at Mark. “Lord Marius asked me to take on Rhys Davis,” he said. He drummed his fingers on the desk. “But I have reservations. He’s not to be alone with the ladies.”

Mark looked at him coldly. “If Rhys asks a woman out to dinner, it means that he will be paying for her to eat with him at a restaurant, nothing more. He’s not a stray with no manners.”

“You tell me that, and Lord Marius tells me that, but how do I know?” Luke said, running his hand through his thinning hair. “How can I trust you and Rhys when you’re something I can’t even imagine?”

Mark looked at him coldly. “I can’t answer that,” he said. “But what choice do you have? If Rhys steps out of line, Lord Marius will deal with it.  You know how he deals with things.”

Luke swallowed. “I’ve seen it, a little,” he said quietly. “I took in some apprentices in the factory, years ago. I said I’d do it to help them out, and everyone needs a hand now and again.”  He stood and paced over to the window and looked down on the stained floor. “They were boggarts, and they’re still with us. But it seems that other boggarts were after them. I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell, but I stood by them then and I stand by them now. Lord Marius was grateful.” He turned around and looked hard at Mark. “Lord Marius looked after me then and I suppose that he’s looking after me now, but…”

“If there was a genuine threat then you wouldn’t be able to move for Knights Templar and non normal protection,” Mark said. “This is just playing safe. Lord Marius feels that he owes you for looking after Keith and Brian. And Rhys is a good lad. He’s usually in charge of a building site. You won’t have any problems. Here.” He pushed his business card across to Luke. “Look my firm up. Look at the reviews. You may find people complaining about the finish, but nothing about throats being ripped out.”

Luke walked back to the desk and took the card. “It’s alright for you to joke,” he grumbled.

“What else has Lord Marius talked about?” Mark asked.

“He’s talked about there being trouble within your lot, but not much,” Luke said. “And he wants some blankets at a good price.”

“You’re doing a deal with an elfen?” Mark said, amused. “Are you sure you want to do that?”

“He’s sending someone in to do the negotiations,” Luke said. “He said it was someone like me, someone called Steve Adderson.”

“He’s a salesman,” Mark said. “He buys and sells to the elfen. He’s tough, but he’s unlikely to be weird.”

“I can deal with tough,” Luke said. “The mill would last long if I couldn’t.”

“I wish I could see it,” Mark said. “But why don’t you show me around so I know what Rhys is getting into. After all, I may need to swap in others if there’s a problem.”

“They’ll all be respectful, won’t they,” Luke said sharply.

“Trust me, all my pack act like gentlemen,” Mark said.

A tense silence hung in The Iron Sickle. Fang was sitting in a corner, his pint untouched, as he stared unseeing and muttered to himself.

“Are you okay, boss?” Kidder asked.

Fang stared at the young werewolf. The lad was just twenty and had been kicked out of his pack for kissing a normal girl his own age. At the back of what was left of his mind, Fang recognised that there was something wrong going on, that Kidder was trying to be kind and he deserved a chance. It was overridden by the swirling dark filling his head. “I’m fine, just fine, and I’ll tolerate no disrespect.” His eyes swept the room. “You lot can’t even look at me straight,” he snarled. “Tonight we’ll hunt, and I’ll show you about respect.”

Sir Dylan waved Gareth into the cottage and switched on the lights. “It’s not been used for a while,” he said. “But it was once a safe space. When I rang the top brass in Lincoln, they said that Otley was once a minor domain before Lord Skyrack got ideas.” He sighed. “The old prince of Leeds sounds like a right bastard. Anyway, we’ve done the rewiring and checked that the plumbing works. There’s some brownies that owe us a favour so they’re going to come in, clean it and redecorate. You’ll have to let them know what you want. Carli’s on her way, isn’t she? She can help with the colours.”

Gareth grinned. “Don’t tell me, you don’t believe that there’s a colour called ‘lilac’.”

Sir Dylan shrugged. “She does colours for a living. I’d make the most of it if I were you.” He hesitated. “You don’t sign up to the same stuff as the Knights Templar. We’re under most of the same rules as monks.” He avoided Gareth’s eyes. “I know a few paladins that are far from monks. All I’m saying is that you can’t have a lass move in without the benefit of marriage. Not here.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, this is obviously the hall. The living room is through there, then the kitchen, study, dining room, another room, downstairs bathroom – we converted that, so the plaster needs to dry out a bit. Then the stairs are at the back.” He led Gareth further in. “There’s six bedrooms because you never know when you might have to put up visitors from Knights Templar, people needing refuge, etc. And there’s another main bathroom upstairs.”

“It doesn’t look that big on the outside,” Gareth said uneasily. “I’m used to a bedsit.”

Sir Dylan laughed. “If you’re working then you can use your stipend from the Home Office to pay for a housekeeper and gardener. Some brownies would jump at the chance.”

“This is taking a bit of getting used to,” Gareth said.

“There’s a gun safe in the study,” Sir Dylan said. “I’ll show you that and I’ll sort out some time at the shooting range and a licence and that.” He grinned. “What does Bron think of that?”

“I have no idea,” Gareth said. “He’s not around at the moment, but I’m sure that he’ll enjoy it.” He looked around the wide hall with the dusty wooden doors leading off. “This isn’t set up like a normal house at all, is it?”

“Not even close,” Sir Dylan said. There was a wild banging on the door.

It was Carli. “Gareth, Bron, you have to help me!” she cried. “It’s awful.”

Gareth followed Carli as she raced out of the garden and down the lane. “I parked down the hill,” she gasped. “I wasn’t sure of the turning so I walked up and I heard the whimper. I thought it was a wild animal that needed help, but…”

“Someone’s hurt?” Gareth said.

“They’re in a bad way,” Carli said. “And I didn’t know what to do.” She raced over to a ditch. “He’s here.” She knelt down to a shape on the ground. “It’s okay, I’ve brought help.”

A shiver ran through Gareth as he heard the pitiful whimper. He felt Bron stirring as he followed Carli. It took all of his self-control not to recoil. “We’re going to need help,” he said, pulling out his phone. “Carli, ring the number marked Tyler, werewolf. Sir Dylan, we’ll use our jackets as a stretcher. We can’t leave him here.”

Sir Dylan’s face was set as he ripped off his jacket. “We should get Mark Davies,” he said.

Bron had dragged off his jacket and was kneeling by the creature. “Mark Davies is a self-absorbed idiot who’s miles away,” he said. “Gareth was right. Tyler is a better choice.” He cast his eyes over the werewolf. “And this poor thing needs help now.”

Sir Dylan glanced up at Carli as she reached Tyler. “Tell him to come to Rowan Cottage,” he said. “He’ll know where it is.” He looked down at the werewolf. “And tell him to hurry.” He started gently easing his jacket under the creature’s head.

Something bad had happened to the werewolf. It wasn’t just the oozing wounds and torn flesh. Werewolves healed quickly enough. Whoever it was had been traumatised. One hind leg was a wolf’s paw, but it was next to a man’s leg. Both of his front legs ended in paws, but they were at the end of human arms. His muzzle was misshapen, neither human nor wolf. Worst of all, he was whimpering and rigid with pain and his eyes were blank.

“Stay back, Carli,” Bron said. “He won’t know what he’s doing and he may snap.” He eased his jacket under the creature’s hips. “Sometimes the wildness takes over in the kindest of wolfkind. Right, Sir Dylan, let’s get our footing and on three… One, two, three.”

The men carried their burden gently down the lane. Carli ran ahead to the cottage and held the door open as they carefully lifted the werewolf into the living room. “Warm water in a basin, please,” Bron said as they lowered the werewolf onto the floor. “If there is one.”

“The house isn’t furnished,” Sir Dylan said. “But there’s a small first aid kit in the cupboard under the stairs. It won’t be much good until Tyler gets here, but I’ll get it now.” He pulled off his sweater and folded it before easing it under the tormented werewolf’s head. It whimpered.

“It’s okay, laddo,” Bron said. “You’re with friends and it’s okay.” He pulled out a knife. “Can you hear me? Now, this knife is big and scary and sharp, but it’s not to hurt you, see. It’s just to cut away your clothes so we can treat you. So don’t fear it, and don’t fear us.”

Carli came in with a bowl of warm water and a roll of kitchen paper. “What happened?” she asked. “Is he going to be okay?”

Bron frowned as he sliced off the werewolf’s tattered jeans. “It’s hard to kill a werewolf, even with fire and silver, but he’s been badly treated. All we can do is make him comfortable and hope that Tyler knows what to do.”

“I told him everything,” Carli said. She reached out and gently stroked the creature’s paw. It whined gently.

Bron stayed poised, ready to knock Carli out of the way if pain got the better of the werewolf and it snapped, but the creature seemed soothed. “Okay, laddo, I’m cutting off what’s left of your shirt,” he said. “It will hurt some, but then we can get the dirt out of your wounds. We can’t have you getting a fever.”

The creature whimpered and whined as Bron removed the last of the tattered clothing. Carli gently stroked his paws. “Poor thing,” she said.

“Keep your hands away from his head,” Bron said. He looked into the werewolf’s eyes. “I know that you wouldn’t want to hurt her, but pain makes people do crazy things and we don’t want you snapping out of instinct, do we?” He saw a faint recognition of his words and relaxed a little. At least the creature wasn’t complete maddened. “Now I’m going to try washing some of the dirt from you, okay, and it will hurt, but it’s not through malice. Try and hold onto that.” Bron looked up at Carli. “If you have to, get away quick. It’s not his fault, but instinct’s the devil when you’re hurting.”

Carli nodded. “Can I help?”

Bron shook his head. “He’ll have enough to bear with just me.” He looked up at Sir Dylan. “You had better get out in the lane and make sure that Tyler doesn’t miss the house. There aren’t many lights around here and we can’t waste time.”

Sir Dylan glanced down at the injured werewolf and nodded. He bent to gently touch a paw. “Help is coming, don’t worry,” he said before striding out of the room.

The minutes stretched. The werewolf whimpered softly as Bron gently cleaned his fur, easing the dried blood and dirt away and murmuring gently to him. “Can you see if there’s a blanket anywhere?” Bron asked. “He’s starting to shiver and he needs warmth.”

Carli leapt to her feet. “He’s going into shock,” she said quietly. “If he’s stuck then he may not be able to heal properly.” She ran a gentle hand over his paw. “I’ll find things to make you comfortable,” she said.

Bron watched her leave and then put a gentle hand on the werewolf’s shoulder. “She’s a good lass,” he said. “If there’s anything around here to help, she’ll find it, don’t worry.” Bron sat on the bare floorboards between the werewolf and the door, blocking any draught. He could worry enough for both of them.

Sir Dylan had never been so glad to see a werewolf. “In here,” he said urgently.

Tyler took in the signs of strain on Sir Dylan’s face. “The woman that called said it was a badly hurt werewolf that was stuck halfway through a change,” he said.

“That’s about right,” Sir Dylan said. “He’s in a bad way and we’re not set up to help him.”

“I’ve brought over some stuff,” Tyler said, hefting a jute bag. “I know my way around a sick dog.” He jogged into the house and into the living room, grimacing when he saw the shape on the floor. Carli had managed to find a faded blanket and her own jacket was added to that, but the creature was shivering and whimpering under the coverings.

“Okay, mate,” Tyler said as he knelt next to the werewolf. “I’m one of your kind, okay, and I know a few things. I’m going to get you set up and then we’ll have a good long talk about how this happened, okay?” He ran a gentle hand over the werewolf, checking the muzzle and wiping it clean. The werewolf licked at Tyler’s hand and Tyler nodded and smiled. “Relax, I’m in charge and I’m going to get all this sorted out,” he said. “I’m going to take control, take the lead and if you keep your fur flat, you’ll be fine, you understand.” He looked at Carli. “Could you pass me the bag?”

Carli’s eyes were wide and fearful as she handed over the bag. “You’ll make him better?” she asked.

“It’s a rough medicine,” Tyler said. “And it’s not easy, but werewolves are tough, right young pup?” The werewolf licked his hand again, though a whimper escaped. Tyler pulled a dusty bottle out of the bag and a small pipette. “You may want to leave for this part,” Tyler told Carli. “It’s not always pretty.”

“I won’t leave now,” Carli said, pale but determined as she held the werewolf’s paw.

“I’ve seen something similar,” Bron said quietly. “It was a long time ago, but I know how it works. He’ll need all his courage.”

Sir Dylan looked between them. “How safe is it?” he asked.

“Safer than staying like this,” Tyler said. “Sometimes you need a drastic remedy.” He carefully drew up 20ml of the brown liquid. Then he frowned and pulled up another 10ml. “I think we need to take a risk.” He patted the werewolf who was watching, panting and with wide eyes. “Hang on, pup,” he said, without warning, and squirted the liquid deep into the werewolf’s throat.

The werewolf convulsed violently, coughing and spluttering. Carli stared as the limbs flowed from one state to another as the shape struggled, wheezing as it dragged in air before finally coming to rest as a young lad, red faced and spluttering. The gashes across his chest and back were already starting to heal and he looked up at Tyler with gratitude. “Thank you,” he said. He coughed a little more.

Carli dashed out to the kitchen and came back with a freshly washed glass of cool water.

“And thank you for your kindness,” he said. “You’re a normal, and you didn’t turn away.” His voice broke a little. “I’m Kidder.”

“Is there somewhere in here where he can rest?” Tyler asked. “It looks pretty empty.”

“I found a camp bed upstairs,” Carli said. “It’s where I got the blanket. It’s pretty bare, but Kidder should be able to rest there.”

“You’ll need a nap, young pup,” Tyler said. “Then we can work out what to do next, okay?”

Kidder nodded and followed Tyler obediently, the blanket wrapped around him. Tyler came back a few minutes later. “The lad will sleep now,” Tyler said. “It would be kind if you could let him rest overnight here before moving him.”

“It’s not a problem,” Sir Dylan said. “We’ll stay here and keep an eye out.”

“What did you give him?” Carli asked. “It seemed to be so, well, violent.”

Tyler met Bron’s eyes and grinned. “It was two tablespoons of cheap rum in an old bottle and with plenty of drama,” he said. “It works every time.”

Chapter Ten

“Thanks for seeing me,” Gareth said as he stepped into Tyler’s workshop. “Me and Bron are both here, so it may sound odd.”

Tyler gave him a long look, then shrugged. “Two people in the same body is nothing compared to what’s been coming and going at the house. Lady Mary has been having a fit.” He waved a hand at a chair against the wall. “I’m mostly dealing with the more mentally stable side, but it’s still a shock to the system. How can I help a paladin?” He shook his head. “I’ve spent most of my life hiding from paladins. Now I’m here and chatting and about to ask if you want a tea.” He looked at them enquiringly.

Gareth shook his head. “We can’t agree how we take it,” he grinned.

Tyler shook his head and propped himself against his workbench. “So how can I help you?” he asked.

“It’s Kidder,” Gareth said. “He’s been staying with us in the paladin house, and he’s been a great help.”

“He’s been helping us get set up and he’s working too hard,” Bron added. “Like he’s scared we’ll throw him out or turn on him.”

Tyler briefly closed his eyes. “I’m never going to get used to this,” he said, then waved a dismissive hand. “It’s not surprising that Kidder’s in a bad place. He got thrown out of his pack down near Luton for practically nothing. Then he drifted around, keeping his tail up and his fur flat, and generally doing his best. He heard that there were places in Yorkshire where strays can settle and found Fang.” Tyler stood and started pacing. “Fang wasn’t always bad. I mean, a normal going into their bar would end up in trouble, and not all of the sheep kills around the Yorkshire Dales are from foxes or stray dogs, but he was okay with the other strays. They didn’t come together like a proper pack, not until Fang got hold of the Orache Stone, but he watched out for cubs like Kidder.”

“The Orache Stone is bad news,” Bron said. “I remember it last time. Don’t underestimate the power it has. It nearly blew Lord Marius away a few days ago.”

“So I heard,” Tyler said. “But back to Kidder. What do you want to do about it? I’m happy to have him here, if he wants it, but I think it’ll be hard for him to trust a werewolf, at least for a bit. I can ask around if any elfen will take him but that could take time.”

“I think he should stay with us,” Bron said. “If it’s okay with you and Lady Mary. He’s a big help. He’s got a knack for fixing things up, and he’s not bad company.”

“It’s not the usual run of things,” Gareth added. “Sir Dylan is having a hard time with it all. But Kidder seems happy enough, and I think it’ll be better once he knows that he’s staying. And we’re getting a brownie to help out,” he added. “Kidder won’t be on his own.”

“Sir Dylan wasn’t keen on that, either,” added Bron. “But I remember the hearth-keepers from the old days. They could be like a stone in your shoe when it came to keeping the home and garden tended, but they were harmless. They were more likely to hide behind a defender than attack them.”

“You have a brownie?” Tyler asked. “That’s…” He stood in front of them and stared. “You’re just breaking the rules for the fun of it, aren’t you?” He ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, I’ll take on the role of Kidder’s pack leader, though. Are you paying him a fair wage and treating him well?”

“I’ll keep a close eye on him,” Bron said. “I can tell that there’s a good lad under all the fear.”

“And he’s not really going to be working for us,” Gareth added. “Once the place is set up, he’ll be more like a lodger. And I’m sure that I’ll be able to get him work at the mill, if he’s willing.”

Tyler’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of work? How safe will he be?”

“Luke is really strict about safety on the mill floor at the moment,” Gareth said. “And I know he’s looking for people in the warehouse and trainees for the weaving. And after a recent scare, he’s been running a full audit of safety in the place.”

“It’s been fun to watch,” Bron said. “It’s a battle every day between him hating to spend the money and worrying about someone getting hurt. Luke looks like he has permanent toothache.”

Tyler ran a hand over his face. “Okay,” he said. “Two tongues, three people talking. It takes a bit of getting used to.” He paced for a moment. “I’m fine with Kidder staying with you – for now. And I’ll be dropping by regularly. Don’t let him get too fluffy and keep his fur flat, okay? He’s a werewolf, not a pet, and not a human – a normal.”

“We won’t forget,” Bron said coolly. “But we won’t make it a definition. The lad needs to work on himself and we won’t stop him. He’s nearly grown.” He met Tyler’s angry gaze without flinching. “And you need to start worrying about the strays that will be lost and without direction when Fang falls. You’ll have a pack to pull together and you’d better be ready to lead it.”

“I’m no pack leader,” Tyler snarled.

“That’s funny,” Bron said. “You were acting just like a pack leader five minutes ago.”

Rhys smiled as he saw Surjit behind the reception desk. “How are things going?” he asked.

“Not too bad,” Surjit smiled back. “I’ve got another rep from a dye company coming in an hour and Luke is having fits about that. He’s spending a lot of money.”

“I was there when the insurance company found out about the lack of security here,” Rhys said. “They still paid out for the dyes, as it turned out that the packaging was substandard. But he’s only got so long to get all the cameras and stuff set up.”

“Cameras?” Surjit asked. “I mean, we’ve got the alarm system and I think that there’s a camera on the car park…”

Rhys shook his head. “The cameras are on their last legs and half of them don’t work. My boss, Mark, put Luke in touch with a contractor, and he got a good deal, but there’s a lot to do.”

“I suppose so,” Surjit said. She looked around a little nervously. “Luke is spending a lot of money recently. We all thought he was running the place down, with him having no kids of his own. But now he’s got a new designer and he’s making all these improvements…”

“I don’t think that Luke is losing his touch,” Rhys said. “If you heard him arguing with the contractor, you would know that he’s as sharp as anything. Perhaps he’s just been distracted and he’s getting back to things.”

“I suppose so,” Surjit said doubtfully. She looked towards the door. “Hi, Carli, have you heard about the security update?”

“I know I’m going to be working away from the office for the next few days because I daren’t risk a power surge on my laptop,” Carli said from behind them. “The last thing I need is losing that while they’re playing with the electric. It cost a fortune.”

Rhys turned around and gave her his best smile. “Will you need a hand getting your stuff to the flat?” he asked. “I’d be happy to help.”

Carli smiled politely. “It’s okay, thank you,” she said. “I’ll be working with Gareth at his place. It’s not far away so we can get back here if we need anything.”

Surjit shook her head. “You need to make him take you on a proper date,” she said. “Or at least make you a nice dinner.”

Carli laughed. “Perhaps I could cook for him as a thank you for letting me work with him,” she said. “I mean, his place is so much nearer and there’s a lot of space.”

“I thought that he just had a little flat,” Surjit said.

Carli shook her head. “He’s moving into somewhere different that’s near to the mill. I’m not sure of all the details, but I know that it needs a lot doing to it, and that he’s got a good deal on the rent.”

“Don’t let him use you for free labour!” Surjit said. “Make sure that you at least get a trip to the cinema or something.”

“He won’t take advantage of me,” Carli said. “Anyway, I need to get busy. I’ve a lot I want to get done today before they start with the security systems, and I need to speak to Allen on the machines first.”

Rhys watched her walk briskly over to the factory. “I wonder if she knows how much she’s fallen for him,” he said.

“I don’t think either of them have realised,” Surjit said. She sighed softly. “And they’re both really nice people. Carli’s the designer, you know and could really throw her weight around. But she doesn’t. She’s really sweet.”

Rhys turned back to Surjit. “But so are you,” he said, watching the blush run over Surjit’s face. “Anyway, I can’t stay here forever, no matter how much I want to. I like to keep an eye on the back of the mill, so I’ll just take a quick walk. I’ll see you later.” He winked at Surjit.

“I’ll see you later,” Surjit said, flustered.

Bron and Gareth parked the car and looked at the house. The light was fading but they could still see a thin plum of smoke curling from the chimney and lights were on in the kitchen and living room.

“It seems odd to have a wood stove in this day and age,” Gareth said. “But I suppose that we need to be prepared for anything.”

“We really do,” Bron said as they reached the door. “That book that Sir Dylan gave us had quite a list of things to look out for. Still, the house is well built and we can be comfortable.”

“I hope Kidder can as well,” Gareth said.

Kidder was busy in the kitchen. “Hi,” he said, jumping around to face them. “I thought that you might like something and I put on a casserole like my mum used to make. But if you’ve already eaten then it will freeze or you can put it in to the fridge for tomorrow. They say that a casserole is better on the second day.” He looked at them anxiously.

“It smells delicious,” Bron said. “Full of good meat and flavour. When will it be ready?”

“It’s ready now,” Kidder said, fidgeting with a tea towel. “I’ve got baked potatoes in as well.” He shifted from one foot to another. “It’s supposed to save energy, cooking baked potatoes and a casserole at the same time.”

“Sounds great,” Gareth said. He pulled out deep white bowls, plates and silverware. “I’ll make the tea.”

“I can do it,” Kidder said quickly.

“You’ll be too busy dishing up the dinner,” Gareth said. He was probably the same age as the werewolf, but he felt so much older. “And I’m starving.”

Kidder dished up two generous servings of beef casserole with huge baked potatoes on side plates, squishy and slathered with butter. Gareth put two mugs of tea on the table and sat down. “This looks great,” Gareth said and took a large forkful.

“This is really good,” Bron said. “And we’re grateful for it. But it shouldn’t all be on you. We’ll have to take it in turns.”

“While I’m here,” Kidder said awkwardly.

“That’s something we need to talk about,” Bron said. “We called in to see Tyler today. I suppose he’s the nearest thing to a pack leader around here.”

Kidder tensed. “Does he want me to move on?” he asked.

Bron shook his head. “We suggested that you stay with us for as long as you feel like it,” he said. “At the moment, you’re sort of a guest and helping us out with setting up the place. And there’s plenty to do,” he added.

“But once things are stable, we thought you could be a sort of lodger,” Gareth said. “We’d charge you a bit of rent, and as we’re getting a brownie housekeeper then you won’t have to do much cleaning.”

“If I remember rightly, you won’t get a chance to do cleaning,” Bron said. “But they’ll raise hell if you make a mess.”

Kidder managed a faint smile. “I’ve heard about them,” he said. “But what about rent and that. I mean, what do I do?”

“We’re trying to work it out,” Gareth said. “But I promise it won’t be much. I’ll look at the bills and see what a fair share of them is. We won’t cheat you.”

“And it isn’t fair that you have to cover stuff that we need because we’re paladins,” Bron said. “But a share of the food and some of the bills sounds about right.”

Kidder stared at them and swallowed. “But that’s…”

“And if you’re looking for work, I think that there’s some jobs at the mill,” Gareth said. “It’s noisy, and no-one knows about non-normals, but it’s okay.”

“I didn’t think… Are you sure?” Kidder asked. “I’m a stray. Do you know what it means?”

Bron shrugged. “It sounds like you’ve had some bad luck. Anyway, Tyler has said that he’ll be looking out for you to make sure that you get treated fairly here. He’s not a bad leader,” Bron said. “Even if he has got his fur up at the moment. There’s papers that you’ll need and he’s sorting that out.”

“Sir Dylan is having fits,” Gareth said, “But he’s agreed that you would be best here for a while, although you can leave whenever you like.”

“So after we’ve cleaned up, we can all have a beer and relax,” Bron said. “And plan how to make this place comfortable.”

“Thank you,” Kidder said, his voice cracking a little. “Thank you so much.”

“I’d wait until we’ve met the brownie before you get too grateful,” Bron said.

Chapter Eleven

Rhys found himself smiling as he turned the corner into Reception. Surjit was there, frowning over the post and making quick notes on the computer. “Hi,” he said. “I’m just checking in.”

Surjit looked up and her answering smile seemed to light up Reception. “Hi, Rhys. Have you time for a quick coffee?”

Rhys nodded. “Don’t you know, I’ve got it all planned out,” he said with his best smile. “I’ve got my routes all sorted so that I can make my coffee stop here.” He had a quick scan of the area before he strode over past the desk and into the tiny back room. “And as it’s my stop, I’ll even make the coffee for you.”

“You’re an angel,” Surjit said. “I’ve got so much on here.”

 Rhys looked around the half assembled security equipment littering the small room. “If things carry on, this room is never going to be big enough.” He added coffee to the filter and slotted it back in.

“We’ll need proper security,” Surjit said. “They’re talking about getting the old looms out. A few of the sales team were talking about it, but they don’t get it. Luke is putting in massive orders for wool and dyes as well as booking a team in to get the looms running. We’re opening up the bigger warehouse.”

Rhys frowned. “I don’t think that I know half of this place,” he said. “I’ve been slacking.” He pulled out two mugs.

“I don’t think that you’ve been slacking,” Surjit said. “You’re always moving around and you don’t seem to miss much.” She paused. “I was planning on heading up to Bolton Abbey at the weekend. I like getting out and about, and it’s beautiful up there with the leaves starting to turn. Do you fancy coming with me? Just for a friendly day out?”

Rhys was torn. “I normally spend the weekend with my family,” he said. “Will your family miss you?”

Surjit grimaced. “Embarrassing admission – I don’t have family. I think I’ve got some third cousins down in Leicester and a few very distant aunts and uncles in Pakistan, but that’s it,” she said. “So weekends can be quiet. I like to keep myself busy.” She smiled shyly. “I can pack a picnic.”

Rhys’ hand clenched around the mugs. He wanted to go with Surjit. He wanted to forget about the prim, closed down Carli and fall into Surjit’s open smile. He wanted to tell his duty to go to hell, to shake off the shame of souring a romance to get a favour. Mark had got his tail twisted and his fur tangled. Where was the honour? Where was the pride? He was supposed to get someone into bed because he was ordered to? He stared at the hissing coffee maker. What had he become? But he had a duty to the pack. He had a duty to Mark. He needed to be at hand to make sure that Mark’s crazy obsessions didn’t wreck the pack any further. He needed to be there for the rest of them. He had to do his duty, force Carli to cheat with him and… There was a sharp crack and he looked down. The mug had shattered in his hand and the cut across his palm from the broken pottery felt like ice.

“Are you okay?” Surjit asked quickly. “That looks like a bad cut – I’ll fetch the first aid kit.”

“I’ll be fine,” Rhys said. “It looks worse than it is and I heal quick.” He looked at the shattered pieces. “I’d love to come out with you,” he said, dropping the pottery shards into the bin and rinsing his hand in the tiny sink. “And if you’re packing the picnic, I’ll drive, and I’ll even buy us a cuppa at the overpriced tea rooms.” He felt his heart light up with Surjit’s bright smile.

“It’s a deal,” she said. “I’ll pack plenty of food.”

“I’m not a vegetarian,” Rhys warned. His heart turned over at the sound of her chuckle.

“That’s okay,” she said. “Neither am I.”

Rhys walked away from Reception, deep in thought. He wouldn’t take the reputation of a dog around the bitches, no matter what Mark said. It was wrong. There had to be another way. Besides, for the last two years he had danced around Mark’s whims, no matter how outlandish, keeping the pack and the business together despite all that was thrown at him. Now, when he finally found someone with a smile that warmed his heart, he wasn’t letting it go.

He pushed that thought aside. He’d have to deal with Mark, but that could wait. He had another duty. He had the duty to keep this mill safe. But he didn’t know all the places. Surjit was talking about the looms, but Rhys had no idea where they were. He had suddenly become aware that there were large areas of the mill that had been closed for years – and anything could be there. He paced on his route, keeping a careful eye out. Technically he wasn’t a real security guard. The chances of Fang ever coming back were slim. Besides, Gareth and Bron could take care of most threats. Rhys had seen the way Bron held himself, the way he moved as he crossed the car park and the power of the man. That man was death. Rhys was never going to cross him, not even on Mark’s crazy orders. But he felt it, deep down, that he should be protecting the people here. That’s what they expected, so that’s what they should do. It was so deeply ingrained in werewolves. The loyalty, the passion and the protective spirit. He had a duty.

The mill was old and massive, sprawling across four floors and a scatter of outbuildings. There were two floors currently working as the old plan expected, with knitting machines on one floor and the making up of the garments on the other. Then there were the offices and the canteen, tucked away on one side but still attached to the factory, and the main stores with the new racks for the dyes and the massive bundles of fleece and cages for the threads. Now the nearest shed was opening up and Rhys could see a figure dragging out rubbish towards a skip. He jogged over. “Hi, I’m Rhys Davies, the security guard,” he said, running an assessing eye over the young lad.

“I’m Kidder Bronson,” he said. “I’m clearing this out now, but I’m going to be starting on the looms next week.” He hefted a bucket of rubbish. “There’s plenty to keep me busy.”

Rhys looked at him closely. “Shouldn’t you have presented yourself to Mark Davies,” he said. “You know that all werewolves are supposed to attend a pack whenever you cross into a territory.”

Kidder raised an eyebrow. “Does that mean that you should have attended on Tyler?” he asked. “This isn’t Leeds Domain anymore.”

“Don’t get clever with me,” Rhys snarled. “Where are your manners?”

Kidder looked him straight in the eye. “What are you talking about? Tyler is the pack leader, I’m staying with Gareth and Bron, I’m nothing to do with Leeds Pack and I’m not going to go fawning around some strange dog because they can’t keep their tail straight,” he said. “I’m not going to start anything, but this is my job. This is the first chance I’ve had in years. I’m not letting some overfed hound push me out of it.”

Rhys felt the fury rise up in him. “You’re yapping pretty hard for a stray,” he snapped.

Kidder dropped the bucket and glared at Rhys. “You stay out of my fur and I’ll stay out of yours,” he said. “But don’t think I haven’t seen you sniffing around Carli – who’s spoken for, by the way. Everyone can see it, everyone can smell it. What sort of dog does that?” He jabbed a finger towards Rhys. “And you ought to be glad I’m here, with Bron and Gareth. Because if Fang comes back here, you’ll need all the help you can get if you want to step up as security and push him out. If he catches you on your own, he’ll eat you, rhinestone collar and all.”

“Big bark, small paws,” Rhys said. “I can handle myself.”

“Yeah, I heard about when you tried to take on The Iron Sickle,” Kidder sneered. “You didn’t keep your tails up then, did you? And it’s getting worse, so if I were you, I’d leave Gareth’s lady alone and get on his good side. Because you’ll need him if Fang comes calling.”

“You might be tagging along with a normal,” Rhys snarled, “But don’t fool yourself. You’re either in a pack or a stray, and we all know what strays are like. Trust me, if I see a claw the wrong way I’ll shred you and they won’t even find your collar.” He spun on his heel and stalked off.

Kidder jogged up to Rowan Cottage. He’d worked an extra few hours under the watchful eye of Luke and Brian and felt a little tired and very satisfied. It was good to be working again. He grinned to himself. They’d even paid him his overtime cash in hand, just this once, so he had some decent money in his pocket. Things were looking up, even if there was that fluff furred security guard hanging around. He slowed down slightly. There were a lot of cars around, and that could mean trouble. He tried to keep calm. If the worst happened, he had the money in his pocket, right?

Carli met him at the door. “It’s chaos in there,” she said, waving at the kitchen. “I thought brownies were supposed to be amazing homemakers.”

Kidder stared. “They are,” he said. “They do homemade everything and keep the house surgically clean. They fold their towels in fancy ways and rotate their stores of toilet paper.”

Carli took a deep breath. “I’m an outsider, right?” she said. “But I think I can see a pattern here. This is a Paladin’s Citadel, isn’t it?”

Kidder nodded. “The place where the paladins live and where normals can come to for help.”

“So having non-normals living there is kind of a problem, as they’re protecting against non-normals?” Carli continued.

Kidder shifted uneasily. “I suppose I shouldn’t be here,” he muttered.

Carli sighed. “I don’t think that Bron would let anyone kick you out now,” she said. “You’re stuck here. He’s seeing you as family, heaven help us all. But you’re a werewolf that’s not a stray, because you’re here. And you’re not in a pack, because you’re here. You’re just part of the household. And now there is a brownie moving in. But not just any brownie! It’s a brownie that doesn’t know how to clean.”

“There’s no such thing,” Kidder said flatly.

Carli sighed deeply. “According to Sir Dylan, Mortimer has been living in a hole in the ground for all of his life, up until now. He explained something about a lord fading and another lord taking over and rescuing some trapped non-normals, over near Hebden Bridge. Mortimer hasn’t had any contact with things like washing machines or microwaves, or, well, have a look.” She ushered Kidder into the kitchen.

A young, tall and extremely skinny brownie was standing by the sink. “Water on,” he said. “Water off. Water on. Water off. Water on. Water off.” He stared, fascinated, at the water coming out of the faucet every time he turned the knob. “There’s so much water.”

“That’s right,” Sir Dylan said. “That’s the cold tap and this is the hot tap.”

“But where is the well?” Mortimer asked.

“There isn’t one,” Sir Dylan said. “It’s all taps.”

The brownie looked thoughtful. “So I don’t have to fetch water?” he said.

“No, you don’t,” Sir Dylan said patiently. “It’s all taps.”

“And I don’t need to heat it over a fire?” Mortimer asked.

“No, it’s all done with the plumbing,” Bron said gently. “Kidder, this is Mortimer and he’s going to be looking after the house.”

Mortimer looked around with determination. “I shall prove worthy of the trust you put in me,” he said. “Lord Richard has given me a device to access the internet and instructed me. There are many cleaning and homemaking resources.”

Kidder thought that he heard Sir Dylan swear under his breath. “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said. “I’m Kidder, and I’m a werewolf.”

Colour drained from Mortimer’s face but he swallowed, took a deep breath and stepped forward to shake hands with Kidder. “I am honoured to meet you,” he said. “I understand that you are a member of this household. May I enquire – do you prefer a bed or a rug?”

“It’s definitely beds,” Carli said with an edge to her voice. “Let’s keep it more standard, in case anyone visits.”

“Of course,” Mortimer said. “I should start making dinner.”

“It’s okay,” Bron said. “With everything being so confusing, I’m ordering pizza. I get a discount.”

“Is it the one near my old flat?” Gareth asked, making Mortimer start. “Have you been helping them out with troublemakers when I’m not around? Because I’ve noticed some really interesting bruises.”

“All you need to worry about is that we get an extremely generous discount,” Bron said. “And the food will come here nice and fresh.”

As Sir Dylan and Bron tried to explain pizza to Mortimer, Carli looked helplessly at Kidder. “Do you know how many cleaning blogs there are?” she asked him. “Or how many YouTube channels just about cleaning? Anything could happen!”

Kidder looked over where Bron was refusing to explain why the pizza place was on speed dial on the phone. “Yep,” he said. “Absolutely anything.”

Chapter Twelve

“What the hell did you do last night?” Gareth groaned as he gingerly lowered himself onto the chair at the kitchen table.

“It’s complicated,” Bron said. “And it’s my turn to take the tea so it’s black with enough sugar.”

Gareth groaned again. “Okay, just get it over with. And what do you mean, complicated?”

“I have already searched the internet on removing bloodstains,” Mortimer said primly as he cracked eggs into the pan. “There shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Bloodstains?” Gareth said. “Thank goodness for long sleeved shirts. They’re going to be asking questions at work.” He rolled up his sleeve and inspected the long, sore gash along his forearm. “How badly did it bleed?”

“Perhaps you should keep a notebook about what each has done when in charge of the body,” Mortimer said, moving bacon from the rack to the warmed plates.

“He doesn’t want evidence,” Gareth said darkly. “And I think that there’s times I don’t want to know.” Bron chuckled and poured himself a mug of tea.

Kidder bounced in, glowing from his morning run. “That bacon smells great!” he said. “Hey, which of you broke up the fight at the boggart birthday party last night? Everyone’s talking about it.”

“Boggarts?” Gareth said. “But they’re really dangerous.”

Kidder stared at Gareth’s damaged arm. “Oh yes! They’re crazy strong and not usually good with reason, especially if they’ve been drinking.” He peered closer as he dropped into his own chair. “You should see a doctor about that. It looks like it should have been stitched.”

“I can’t go to a doctor like this,” Gareth said. “I think they have to report anything like knife or gunshot wounds, or anything with violence.”

“It wasn’t a knife,” Bron said. “It was a broken bottle. The party had spilled out of the house to the local shops and it got a bit boisterous. A cut from a piece of broken glass can’t be suspicious. It’s practically a household accident that could happen to anyone.” He took a long drink of his tea.

“It’s so weird hearing both of you speak out of the same body,” Kidder said. “I’ll never get used to it. And that slash must have hurt.”

“I was a bit busy at the time,” Bron said. “I didn’t really notice. Thank you, Mortimer.”

Mortimer smiled as he placed three plates on the table together with an extra plate for the surplus eggs and bacon and a rack with toast. His was a small portion but both Gareth and Kidder had loaded plates in front of them. “It’s important to start with a good breakfast,” he said. “And the food here is wonderful.”

Kidder looked at him thoughtfully, then down at the bacon, eggs, mushrooms and toast on the plate. “You’re a great cook,” he said.

“We never had eggs in the domain,” Mortimer said. “And bacon was only for Saturday. This abundance is amazing.”

“Thank you for cooking,” Gareth said. “Carli and I will take you shopping one night this week so you can get an idea of what’s available.” He winced as he stretched to reach the toast.

“You really need to see a doctor,” Kidder said. “Why don’t you ask Sir Dylan. He must know of someone who knows what they’re doing but that wouldn’t ask questions.”

“What happened with the boggarts?” Gareth asked, buttering the toast.

“It wasn’t anything serious,” Bron said. “A couple of youngsters had been drinking a little hard and were getting a bit rowdy. They calmed down after I dropped them on their heads a few times and had a word with their grandmother.” He grinned. “She laid the law down and promised that she’d send some snacks as compensation.” He looked at Mortimer. “She said that she owned a bakery so someone may be dropping off a box of bread or something. I’m sure that we can use it up.”

Kidder nodded enthusiastically as he polished off his last mouthful of bacon and started reloading his plate. “I can always find room for a sandwich,” he said.

Mortimer took a small mouthful of egg and stared as Kidder piled his plate again. “I’ll purchase further bacon,” he said. “And I don’t think that there will be a problem using an extra loaf or two.”

“I need the energy,” Kidder said, adding another egg from the serving dish. “They’re opening up the third floor and I’m helping them move the machinery into place.”

“Take it steady and don’t let them strain you,” Bron said. “You’re still not much more than a cub.”

Kidder grinned. “It’s all on hydraulic lifts,” he said. “And Brian and Keith are helping out, and they’re boggarts. The warehouse guys are helping as well, so we shouldn’t have a problem. Then the engineers will be testing the kit for the next few days. It’s going to be amazing. Luke said that I’ll get trained up on the looms.”

Gareth nodded. “Carli was talking about it. She has a buyer coming today to talk about the designs for the blankets.” He winced again. “I’ll have to give Sir Dylan a call about the doctor today. Anyway it’s turning into one of those complicated things. Lord Marius wants to buy blankets to trade from his domain. There’s some sort of complicated arrangement going on with them owing each other favours. A guy called Steve Adderson is coming to make the deal and check out the patterns and to confirm prices. The sales team aren’t happy that they’re missing out on commission on this, but it sounds like Steve will put some business their way.”

Kidder’s eyes were wide. “Steve Adderson is a scary guy,” he said. “I mean, really scary. He’s the son of Lord Marius and he knows everyone and I heard that he fried a load of strays with lightning over in York.” He looked at Gareth. “You won’t let me be alone with him, will you? I mean, you’re supposed to protect normals not us, but you wouldn’t turn your back on me?”

“I’ll be there for you,” Gareth said, “And I’ll let Carli know as well. Besides, it’s just sales. There won’t be any trouble.”

“You’re one of us now,” Bron said firmly. “We look after our own. And this Steve Adderson is some sort of shaman, is he?”

“I don’t know about that,” Gareth said. “But he’s red hot as a salesman. He had Luke beat and got a really good deal for all wool, all natural dye blankets in weird patterns. I wouldn’t worry about it. He’s going to be busy with Carli and the designs.”

“As long as it’s only designs he’s talking about,” Bron said.

Kidder shook his head. “I’ve heard all about him. He’s married and they have a shop in York. I think that Carli will be fine.” He frowned for a moment. “But even if you’re not there, I’ll look after her.”

“That’s the spirit,” Bron said. There was a knock on the door. “I’ll get it. Mortimer – make sure that you eat enough, okay. You’re working hard here.”

Kidder nodded as Bron headed for the door. “He’s right, you know,” he said. “You’ve been amazing. The house is getting decorated and everything’s clean and tidy. You’ve even started working on the garden, and that’s a mess.”

“I hope that I can give satisfaction,” Mortimer said. He looked anxiously at Kidder. “If I don’t get things right here, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

For a moment, all of Kidder’s fears showed on his face. “I know what you mean,” he said. “If I get it wrong here…” His voice trailed off.

“Hey, you two, give us a hand,” Bron yelled from the hall.

Kidder and Mortimer exchanged a glance and then went out into the hall. Kidder chuckled. “How much trouble did the boggarts cause?” he asked, looking past Bron to the four young boggarts standing nervously at the door.

“We’re really sorry,” one said. “And Gran has told us to tell you that she’ll keep you in mind.”

“You don’t want us to bring it in,” another boggart said. “It’s just that my mam said that I should never go into a Paladin’s Citadel, just in case.” The other boggarts nodded in nervous agreement.

“It’s okay, lads, we’ve got it,” Bron said breezily. “And don’t worry about it. It’s all done and dusted and forgotten. Just keep your heads next time, okay, and don’t try attacking the big dumpster bins at the back of the supermarket again. Even if you think they’re fighting back.” He chuckled. “And if you have to, and you think that they’re winning, walk away.”

The young boggarts flushed with embarrassment and shuffled away. Bron turned to Kidder and Mortimer. “Can you give me a hand with these,” he said. “I hope you know how to use it all up.”

Kidder stared. “Wow!” he said. “You must have really impressed the grandmother.”

“This is a challenge, though a welcome one,” Mortimer added. “I’m not quite sure where I’ll store it, but I’ll not let a crumb be wasted.”

Kidder looked at the four large boxes overflowing with a dozen varieties of bread, together with pastries, cakes and biscuits. The scent rising from them was almost intoxicating. “I’ll do my share to help you out with that,” he said.

Rhys led Mark up onto the third floor. “This place is huge,” he said. “And I swear that I haven’t found half of the corners.” He turned and looked at the pack leader. “If we are going to give proper security, we need a team. Anything could come crawling out at night.”

“We’re not proper security, dammit,” Mark said. “There’s a paladin here, for fur’s sake. You’re here to get Carli away from the paladin. Anything else is a bonus.”

“I can’t do that,” Rhys said. “She’s absolutely besotted by Gareth. She hasn’t even noticed me.”

“I know what sort of a dog you are,” Mark sneered. “You’ve had bitches all over the county following you. She would have been licking your hand if you had made a proper effort.”

Rhys’ lips curled. “I’m no dog, not like that,” he snapped. “And I know the orders. But I’m not forcing a woman and I’m not a murderer. Not when it’s just a bystander.”

“You’ll do as you’re told!” Mark snapped back.

“Or what?” Rhys growled. “You don’t even know where the new constructions are starting, you haven’t turned up to any of the planning meetings, you don’t know anything about the new supplier and you weren’t the one dealing with complaints to the neighbours up on the project in Armley. You owe me! While you’ve been hovering around Claire, I’ve been holding everything else together. Don’t push me.”

“I’ll give you a lesson,” Mark snarled. “Do you think that you’re up to my whiskers yet? I’ll send you off yelping and knowing your place. Deal with Carli, that’s all I’m saying.”

Rhys laughed bitterly. “I don’t think so,” he said. “How often are you in the gym? How often are you part of the training runs? When did you last lift a load of bricks? You are getting weak, Mark, and nobody is fooled. When it came to the scrap in The Iron Sickle, it wasn’t you who pulled everyone’s tails out of the fire. Face reality, Mark. You’re not the fighter you once were.” He fought to control his temper. “Ask Lord Marius for help. You know that he’d be there for us. We’ve been there often enough for him.”

“Violet will give me control of the stone, but only if I get rid of Carli,” Mark said. “She said it can heal Claire. We’ve got to get Carli out of the way. So do your job, dog.”

Rhys shook his head. “Mark, are you sure that this is what Claire would want?” he asked. “If there’s anything there of her to ask? There’s just a shell left, and it’s twisting in permanent pain. I hear her sobbing at night.” He grabbed hold of Mark’s arm. “Are you doing this for Claire or for you?”

“What’s this about Violet?” a voice said from the shadows.

The two werewolves whirled around as Fang strolled out. Rhys stepped up to him. “Get out of here.”

“Or what?” Fang said. “I’ve got the stone.” He held the stone up in front of him. It gleamed darkly under the harsh strip lights.

Rhys could feel the energy flowing from it in icy waves. “Congratulations, you have a shiny pebble. Get out.” He took another step forward. Behind him he could hear a low growl starting in Mark’s throat and his heart sank. The old leader was ready to lose control and this wasn’t the time.

“Do you really think that Violet can control this?” Fang said, holding the stone up to let its gleam spread. Blue and red tinted gleams of light sparked in the darker corners of the room. “Nothing controls this,” he said. “Not me, not anyone. I can only serve and feel that deep power through me like fire filled with silver.” His eyes were wild. “You are an inconvenience to me. I’ll deal with you first.”

“Keep your fur flat,” Rhys hissed to Mark. “Play it canny.” He stared into Fang’s mad eyes. “Do you think that you can face both of us? Get out.”

“If you thought you could take me, you would have already sprung,” Fang laughed. “Weaklings.” Mark leapt.

Rhys went to fur and followed Mark, snapping at Fang’s arm as it was flung up at Mark. Then everything went wild. Rhys’ fur bristled as magic and static filled the room and he was flung violently against the wall, landing hard and winded. He could hear Mark’s howls as he scrabbled to get on his paws, fighting to catch his breath.

“Does puppy want to play?” Fang sneered, then yelped as Mark caught Fang’s wrist in his jaws. Another wave of magic ricocheted around the wide mill and the strip lights flickered wildly. Rhys could hear Mark’s snarls through the ringing in his ears and forced himself upright.

“I’m coming, Mark,” he barked, and launched himself into Fang’s side, knocking him backwards and loosening the grip Fang had on Mark’s throat. This time Fang didn’t bother with a blow. Instead magic rang through him, burning into his mind and sparking out of his fur. His legs buckled under him and his paws skidded wildly on the concrete floor. He heard Mark yowl and then a thud. Rhys shook his head and tried to focus his blurred vision. They couldn’t fight this. They needed to get out of here. They needed to warn the pack…

“Stop!” an unfamiliar voice cried.

Rhys pulled himself onto his paws and headed towards Fang. He couldn’t let a bystander be hurt. “Give it up, Fang,” he growled.

“I have the stone,” Fang yelled, his voice high and cracking.

“No!” The unknown voice rang with authority.

Rhys staggered again, swaying and stumbling as the swirling magic was sucked out of the atmosphere and the static left his fur. His vision cleared and he could see Mark, in fur, lying sprawled and stunned against a wall. Fang was still in cloth, holding up the Orache Stone as he glared at the newcomer who was flanked by Gareth. Gareth looked purposeful and was holding a large silver knife, but it was the stranger that caught attention. A slim man in a sharp business suit, he held up his hand, multicoloured magic swirling around it, and he was glaring at Fang. “Get out,” he said quietly.

Fang stared at him with baffled fury. Rhys pulled himself onto his paws and got ready to spring, but Fang swore, flourished the stone and, with a sharp crack, disappeared.

Gareth rushed over to Rhys. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Rhys got out of fur and nodded. “I’m fine.” He looked over to Mark. “My pack leader…”

The stranger was leaning over Mark. “I think he’s just stunned,” he said, running a hand over Mark’s well furred flanks. “If we give him a moment, he should be fine.” He looked up at Rhys. “I’m Steve Adderson. What the hell was that?”

Chapter Thirteen

Kidder wandered into the garden, grinning at the Knights Templars. “When is the furniture going to get here?” he asked.

“It should have been here half an hour ago,” Sir Dylan said, checking his watch.

“This isn’t an easy place to find,” Sir Philip said. “I had a few problems getting here myself.”

“I’m glad that Lincoln sent you,” Sir Dylan said. “I think we’ll need all the help we can get. I’m just sorry that the accommodation isn’t the usual standard. I mean, you could stay in Leeds, but it’s better to be nearer the action.”

“Mortimer is having fits,” Kidder said. “He’s in a state about how we are going to eat dinner without a proper dining table.”

“Brownies are always having fits,” Sir Philip said easily. “We’ll manage even if we have to sit on the floor and eat with plates on our laps.”

“It’s not like he’s used to a lot of furniture,” Kidder said. “He’s been in a bit of a bad place, but now he’s been watching videos online about how to lay the table and, well…”

Sir Philip chuckled. “At least you’ll be well fed,” he said.

“I’m going to ring the store,” Sir Dylan said, pulling out his phone.

“It’s a charity shop,” Sir Philip said. “They aren’t going to have a strict schedule. The extremely cheap furniture will be here when it’s here. We may as well relax in the sun while we can.”

Kidder stretched in the late autumn sunshine. “I’m taking my chance to do nothing,” he said. “Mortimer will have us moving the furniture around for hours and then I’ll be busy moving stuff around at work next week.”

“How’s it going?” Sir Dylan asked. “Have you had any more problems with Fang?”

Kidder shook his head. “And Rhys has calmed down a little,” he said. A shadow passed across his face. “But the sooner we get Fang sorted, the happier I think everyone will be.”

“He’ll get sorted out,” Sir Dylan said. “We won’t let him get away.”

“Gareth is coming,” Kidder said, tilting his head and grinning again. “Wait until you hear Gareth and Bron arguing, Sir Philip. It’s weird.”

Gareth walked around the corner and out from behind the untidy hawthorn hedge. “There’s a van stuck at the bottom of the lane,” he said. “And it’s blocking the way. I can’t get past it. Apparently someone bought all the furniture in a charity shop and paid extra for delivery.”

“How can it be stuck?” Sir Dylan said.

Sir Philip looked at him. “Let me see, a volunteer driver in an unfamiliar, overloaded van down a narrow lane. What could possibly go wrong?”

“If it’s definitely for us, then we need to give her a hand,” Gareth said. “I don’t think that the van is well loaded, and if we just get a few bits out then it could make all the difference.” He looked at them. “How much furniture did you buy?”

“Not enough for Mortimer,” Kidder chuckled.

Sir Philip laughed. “We got so much that the charity shop threw in some tray cloths and doilies to help the deal,” he said.

“Great,” said Bron, making Sir Philip start. “We’re going to have a house full of young men but set out like an old lady’s place.” He shrugged. “If it’s warm, dry and clean then I’ll take it.” The phone in his pocket rang. “Excuse me.” He wandered off into a corner of the unkempt garden.

“Joking aside, sirs, but how much did you buy?” Kidder asked.

Sir Dylan shook his head. “I wanted to go to IKEA,” he said. “We’ve got a reasonable budget and we need practical, not fancy. But I was overruled.” He looked pointedly at Sir Philip.

“It seemed the right thing to do,” Sir Philip said. “We had a lot of money to spend and now it’s helping out a charity.”

Sir Dylan grimaced. “We got a lot of furniture,” he said. “But I’m sure that we’ll need it. I’m not sure about the tray cloths, though.”

“We have a problem,” Bron snapped, striding back to them. “That was Mark, the werewolf. He went up to see Violet and it looks like Fang paid her a visit before he got there. I’m on my way there. Follow me when you get the damn lane cleared.” Bron started running down the lane. “And get that Steve Adderson to turn up,” he yelled over his shoulder. “In case Fang comes back.”

“Get Mortimer,” Sir Dylan snapped to Kidder. “We need to get that lane cleared.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and pressed speed dial. “Steve, it’s Sir Dylan. I’ll send you the co-ordinates. It could be our chance.”

Bron raced up to Violet’s cottage and then paused, controlling his breathing with difficulty. The garden had seen a fight. Violet’s beloved plants had been crushed and tossed in some sort of struggle. The door hung from the hinges, swinging slowly. Bron approached carefully. “Violet, are you there?”

“She’s gone,” a voice said.

Bron headed to the sound of the voice. “Is that you Mark?” he asked. “And where has Violet gone.”

“I mean, she’s…” Mark’s voice trailed off and Bron heard him take a deep breath. “She’s dead, Bron. I was too late.”

“No,” Bron said with iron control. “The elfen do not die so easily.” He strode into the cottage and the truth hit him like ice.

“Fang was all over her,” Mark said. “I tried my best, but…”

Bron looked at Mark coldly. The werewolf had a lot of the marks of battle, the scrapes and bites slowly fading and the adrenaline was still seeping out of him. “You’re the leader of the pack,” Bron said. “And you couldn’t stop Fang.”

Mark snarled but then shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I heard that you and Violet were close. Fang has that stone. I drove him off, but I was too late. Violet had been too badly hurt.”

Bron looked around the fading cottage. The colours were starting to seep out of the wall and dust was settling. He could see all of the signs of a fight. The loom in the corner had been shattered and the warp had been tangled, caught in the battle. Ashes from the fire were scattered on the hearth rug and furniture was upturned. He reached out to a fading throw, tangled in the remains of a smashed chair. And mixed in with the chaos was a drift of dead leaves and splashes of vivid blood. “There’s been a battle here, alright,” Bron said. “Violet was fading, but she would not have gone quietly.”

Mark stared at him. “I was holding her. I got Fang by the throat but he wriggled out and went through the window,” he said, nodding at the window. “But Violet was hurt and I tried to hold her.”

“When elfen die, they return to nature,” Bron said. “They go back to leaves and dust and air.” His fists clenched and unclenched. “We should get out of here.”

Mark looked around. “Is it cursed?” he asked.

Bron shook his head. “Violet’s spirit filled this place,” he said. “Now she’s gone, it’s not so stable. Think – isn’t it a lot dimmer than it used to be? And look at the blood, look how bright it is next to the floor and walls.” His shoulders slumped for a moment. “The cottage will follow Violet. It’s best that we get out of here.”

Bron didn’t wait for Mark but strode out of the cottage and into the autumn sunlight. The garden, already fading and ready for winter, was losing what was left of its vigour and withering as he looked.

“I’m so sorry,” Gareth said into the back of Bron’s mind. “I know that you cared.”

“Thanks,” Bron said. “She had faded, and she was often silly, but…” He walked slowly down the cracked path and stepped over the crumbling gate and into the lane. He glanced up and down, checking for trouble. He had to show the boy how to behave like a man. He needed to be measured and keep his head clear of the red rage filling him. “She was my last true link with the old days, my old life.”

“Do what you need to do,” Gareth said. “Be who you are. I can feel the pain coming from you like heat from a furnace. I may not be an old warrior, but I know that you can’t bottle this up.”

Bron sensed Mark behind him. “Which way did Fang go?” he asked.

“He went out of the window,” Mark said. “He must have overheard me talking with Rhys in the mill. I talked about Violet having some control over the stone. He must have been worried.” He turned back to the cottage and squinted. “You said it would fade, but I didn’t expect that.”

Bron glanced back briefly. The outline of the cottage looked blurred and smudged, like it was seen through thin smoke or a heat haze. “Violet had lived here for many centuries,” he said. “It was mostly her will in the walls, keeping it standing for all these years. It was part of her. But which way did Fang go? That’s the important question.” He frowned as a car raced up the lane and pulled up next to the gateposts. “What do you want, wizard?”

Steve got out of the car and met Bron’s dark gaze before flicking past him to the cottage. “I see,” he said softly. “I’m sorry that I was too late.”

Bron turned back to Mark. “Which way did Fang go?” he asked again.

“He went to the north,” Mark said. “But that must have been fifteen minutes ago and he could move fast in the countryside, especially if he went to fur. He could have gone anywhere.”

“You can’t take on the Orache Stone,” Steve said. “And that’s probably all that’s left of Fang. You can’t take it one on one. We need to work as a team.”

“You’re mistaken, wizard,” Bron said. “I was the one who dealt with it last time.”

“It killed you last time,” Steve said. “And the stone wasn’t destroyed. It’s different now. Lord Marius has learned a lot over the years, and the Knights Templar are better trained than most would believe. Let us help you.”

“Have you ice in your veins?” Bron asked. “Can you turn away from something like this? Could you stop yourself from going straight after the one who killed your love.”

Steve met Bron’s glare without flinching. “I’ve always waited,” he said. “It wouldn’t help anyone if I went in without thinking and made everything worse. Or do you want Fang to take you as well as Violet, and Gareth with you?”

“No fight is without risks,” Bron growled.

“We can avoid the worst of the risks,” Steve said impatiently. “We can put plans and fallback plans in place. We have a better chance of taking down Fang and the Orache Stone as a group. It needs more than just brute force.”

“Brute force worked last time,” Bron said.

“Did it?” Steve asked, his voice icy. “Last time you ended up dead and the village was without a defender for decades. The people there suffered. And you only managed to use brute force because of magical help from Violet – who isn’t here. Magic won’t work on its own and neither will brute force, not if we want all of us walk away in one piece.”

“I’ll back you no matter what,” Gareth said in the back of Bron’s mind.

Bron stared at Steve for a long moment, then nodded. “I want the best chance of getting rid of Fang,” he said. “I’ll play by your rules. But I’m still going to track Fang.” He tapped the phone in his pocket. “I’ll keep in touch.” And, with a quick look around, he disappeared into the forest behind the crumbling cottage.

Chapter Fourteen

“And you never thought to tell me!” Gareth hissed.

Kidder edged his way towards the door of the empty mill room. “I’ll just go and get…” he said.

“I’ve never asked you about your love life,” Carli said. “What difference does it make?”

“You didn’t tell me that your last boyfriend was a werewolf,” Gareth snarled. “So when I was trying to work everything out, you just smiled and watched me struggle.”

“It wasn’t like that!” Carli snapped back. “By the time that came up I was too busy dealing with Bron.”

“Leave me out of it,” Bron said.

“But you could have said something,” Gareth said.

Kidder bumped into Rhys in the doorway. “You do not want to go in there,” Kidder said.

“They’re going to be bringing up the machinery after lunch,” Rhys said. “I thought I’d have a quick sniff around.”

“When was I supposed to say something?” Carli snapped. “One minute we’re working up to holding hands, the next minute we’re neck deep in this, this, this non-normal stuff.”

“I don’t know,” Gareth growled. “Any time you felt like it. You know, when we were looking after Kidder you could have said something.”

“But Kidder didn’t need to hear an argument then,” Carli said. “He was in a really bad way.”

“I’m not sure that I need to hear an argument now,” Kidder murmured to Rhys, who grinned.

“And I didn’t need to go looking through Sir Philip’s phone to find the map and find pictures of you,” Gareth shouted. “And looking like that!”

Kidder and Rhys’ heads snapped around to stare at Carli, who ignored them.

“You’re only after me for my looks, aren’t you?” Carli cried.

“You didn’t look like the photo when you first came into the mill,” Gareth yelled. “I hardly recognised you under that makeup.”

“I was a design student,” Carli said. “Of course I was going to experiment with my look.”

“You looked like an extra in a cheap vampire porno,” Gareth said bluntly.

Kidder and Rhys winced. “He’s never going to get back from that,” Kidder said.

“At least there’s only one of me in here,” Carli snapped back.

“And then I find, from Sir Philip and not you, that you had to leave Birmingham to get away from an abusive werewolf boyfriend,” Gareth snarled. “What happens if he follows you here? It would be great if I could have a little warning.”

“Because being ambushed by a werewolf is getting a bit run of the mill,” Bron added.

Rhys shrugged. “He’s got a point,” he said.

“You stay out of this,” Carli said. “I can look after myself, you wouldn’t need to get involved.”

“You could look after yourself so well that you needed a Knights Templar escort to get here, which is where you met Sir Philip, and if there was a werewolf problem, it would be me that had to deal with it,” Gareth yelled.

“Okay, I may have had a Knights Templar escort,” Carli said with dignity. “But I was coming up here after finishing my design degree. I’d been speaking to Uncle Luke…”

Silence rippled across the room.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Rhys murmured to Kidder.

“Luke is your uncle?” Gareth asked coldly.

“Listen, there was some sort of row between him and my mother before I was born,” Carli said. “It doesn’t matter, I just need you to hear me.”

“When were you planning on telling me?” Gareth asked.

“I don’t know!” Carli said. “It wasn’t important.”

“And knowing that I should be prepared for a potential werewolf stalker wasn’t important?” Gareth’s voice was icy. “Even if our personal relationship was unimportant to you, I would need to know as the paladin.”

“But he’s not coming,” Carli said. “Gareth, please, listen to me.”

“Are there any more surprises that I need to know as the paladin?” Gareth asked. “Because I don’t think it’s worth asking about the personal level. I can see that there’s nothing left there.”

“It’s not like that!” Carli yelled. “I was desperate, my stepfather was on the verge of war with the local pack leader and then Uncle Luke got in back in touch with mum about closing down the factory.”

“Are you sure about that?” Gareth yelled back, waving a hand around the room. “Because three industrial looms are coming out of storage and getting set up in here and that doesn’t look like the mill is closing to me.”

“No! Stop twisting my words,” Carli cried. “When Uncle Luke found out that I was graduating in clothing design, he thought he could maybe pass things on. I didn’t want anyone to treat me different, so…” She stared at Gareth. “You wouldn’t have taken me for dinner if you’d known.”

“Lass, that’s not the right thing to say,” Bron said. “What you’re saying is that you would have only gone out with Gareth as part of a lie.”

“That’s not what I meant at all!” Carli said. “And when Uncle Luke saw how Gareth was making a difference in sales…”

“No wonder he was so protective of you,” Gareth said. “And what’s that you said about your stepfather. Is he a werewolf as well?”

“He led a subpack over at Dudley,” Carli whispered. “He was good to mum, and like a proper dad to me. I won’t hear a word against him. And my ex, well, once the pack leader realised what was going on, he took action and he won’t be bothering us.”

“You,” Gareth said. “He won’t be bothering you. I don’t think that there’s an us anymore. After all, you’re the niece of a mill owner and likely to inherit the whole thing and your stepfather is important in the non-normal world. I know when I’m out of my league.”

“You’re a paladin, dammit,” Carli shouted. “And you wouldn’t treat me any different.”

“Are you sure about that?” Gareth said. “Even if I didn’t treat you different, would you always be looking out for it?”

“He has a point,” Bron said.

“Stay out of this,” Carli snarled.

There was a long pause as Kidder and Rhys inched away.

“Don’t cry,” Gareth said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“I know,” Carli sniffed before breaking into full sobs. “But I’m so scared to lose you.”

“I’m going nowhere,” Gareth said softly. “Come here.”

Kidder glanced back and saw Carli leaning against Gareth as he held her close, stroking her hair. “You may need to stall the looms,” he said to Rhys.

Rhys grinned. “They’ll be fine in a minute,” he said. “I can’t remember when I last saw a pair so besotted with each other. They haven’t worked it out properly yet, but they will.”

Kidder nodded, a little shyly. “She’s a really good person,” he said to Rhys. “And Gareth and Bron are decent people. They’ve all been very kind to me and Mortimer.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Rhys said. “Or I’d be having words with them.” His phone rang. “Excuse me.” He strode off to a corner near the stairs.

Kidder peeked back at the couple before ducking quickly back. “It looks like everything’s alright again,” he grinned at Rhys as he returned before seeing Rhys’ expression. “Is everything alright?”

“Claire has died,” Rhys said. “That’s Mark’s wife. I need to get back to the pack. Can you have a sniff around and make sure that Romeo does a check as well, just to be sure?”

“Of course, mate,” Kidder said. “And I’m really sorry. Please pass on my condolences.”

“Thanks,” Rhys said.

Chapter Fifteen

Image from Unsplash, taken by Jie Mi

“Hey, Mark,” Rhys said, cautiously walking into the office. “I’m so sorry.” He looked at the werewolf sitting hunched at his desk. “The doctor has signed the certificate and the undertakers will be here any time to take Claire. The nurse is with her until then. I thought it was best that she was in a safe place.”

Mark managed a nod. “We don’t want weirdos going after our dead,” he said, his voice hoarse and raspy.

“Everyone’s here,” Rhys said. “All the women are getting together in the kitchen.”

“I suppose it’s what they do,” Mark said.

“The kids were hanging around so I got them tidying the car park and grounds. It will keep them busy so they don’t get caught up in things,” Rhys said.

“That’s good,” Mark said, staring blankly ahead. “We’ll need the place to look smart for the visitors.”

“And I’ve set up a rota to guard Claire until…” Rhys watched Mark warily. “She will need to be guarded until cremation. She won’t be alone.”

“I’ll be there,” Mark said. “I’ll keep watch with them.” He looked at Rhys, devastation in his eyes. “She’s gone. Claire’s dead.” He dropped his gaze to the picture of their wedding that was clenched in his hand. “What am I going to do now?”

“I’m so sorry,” Rhys said. “I’ll ring up the clients for the building work and let them know that there’ll be a lag, but we should be able to keep things mostly on track.” He leaned forward. “The minister will be here soon as well,” he said. “Do you know if Claire had any ideas about her funeral?”

Mark growled. “What sort of question is that? I wouldn’t let her believe that it was terminal. I kept telling her that she’d get better, that she’d be fine.” He looked up and his gaze burned into Rhys. “How could I ask her to think of a funeral when it was so important to think of life.”

“Well, you need to be able to tell the minister something,” Rhys said.

“Why?” Mark said.

“What do you mean?” Rhys asked warily.

“Why now?” Mark said. “If she had held on just a little longer…” He turned to Rhys. “I did everything I could, you know, everything. I held her, I prayed, and I…”

“We all know that you did all you could,” Rhys said. “You were devoted.”

“Claire was everything to me,” Mark said. “She was my heartbeat.” He stood and started pacing. “I wouldn’t have led the pack without her. She kept me whole.”

“She was a good woman,” Rhys said.

“She was sunshine,” Mark said. “She held my heart and was safe. And she did so much with the women.”

“She was a great leader in her own right,” Rhys said. “Everyone loved her.”

“She made such a difference to everyone,” Mark said. “And she took over a lot of the paperwork.”

“She really shook up the office,” Rhys said. “Her handwriting is still all over the papers and files.”

Mark snarled and swept the papers from his desk. “Why couldn’t she last a little longer?”

Rhys stared at the drift of papers swirling down onto the plain carpet. “Mark, sometimes it’s just someone’s time. We can’t answer that,” he said helplessly. “The minister will be here in a few hours. It’ll help to talk to them.”

Mark kicked the wastepaper bin hard. It crashed against the wall, denting the plaster. “All I needed was a little more time and I could have saved her,” he said. He stood there, panting a little. “Why? Why did it go this way, Rhys? Why was the timing so wrong?”

“Mark, it’s hard, I know,” Rhys said soothingly. “But it’s how things are. It’s not easy, it’s never easy, but you just have to keep your fur flat and keep going.”

“And how many wives have you lost?” Mark snarled. “You talk the talk, but what do you know.”

Rhys struggled to hold in his temper. “I know that I’ve not lost someone like this, but I remember losing my parents, and I remember how tough it was,” he said, pushing down his instinctive response. “And when all is said and done, we need to think about Claire. She’d want to see you keeping going. You know how much she cared about the business and the pack.”

“She cared about everything and everyone but her,” Mark said. Abruptly he upturned the desk. “If she had seen a doctor earlier, or if I’d noticed that she was failing before and made her go, it would have been different.”

Rhys looked around the wrecked room. “We can’t go back in time,” he said, slowly picking up the desk. “And you’re the pack leader. You have to show the cubs how it’s done and set a good example.” He glanced at the damaged plaster. “So we have the cremation as soon as possible, then the memorial at the next dark of the moon, as traditional.” He started gathering together the papers. “Stella can sort out the food, if you like. She knows what’s fit for the cremation. I’ll sort out the business side and we’ll just keep putting one paw in front of the other like we always do. And we keep remembering Claire in our hearts.”

Mark stared at him. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You really don’t understand.”

“Claire’s Bible is still in her room,” Rhys said. “You can look up readings before the minister gets here. You know that Claire had a lot of faith. She’d want something nice.”

Mark looked out of the window. “The undertaker is here,” he said. “I’m going to guard Claire. Just sort something out with the minister – you’ll know the sort of thing.” He pushed past Rhys and jogged down the hall to Claire’s room.

Rhys straightened the room and made a note on his phone to get the plaster patched. He leafed quickly through the papers, but there was nothing urgent or even important. All the main business had been coming through him for a while now and it was his desk in the side office that held the critical stuff. He placed the papers carefully back on Mark’s desk before running a weary hand over his face. He could see the shape of the future and it didn’t look good. He didn’t have time for that, though. He had to go and search the internet for readings suitable for funerals on top of everything else.

Kidder opened the door to Carli. “It’s good to see you, but are you sure that you want to be here?” he asked, grinning.

“What’s up?” Carli asked, then winced as Bron’s voice boomed from the living room.

“I’m doing my time and taking my share of the work,” he yelled. “But where is the support looking for Fang? Why am I the only one hunting him down?”

“We can’t risk The Iron Sickle on our own,” Gareth added. “But we’ve tracked all around there.”

“And surely you should be looking at this?” Bron said. “Violet’s dead! You can’t just wink at a murder just because it was an old and fading elfen.”

Kidder beckoned Carli towards the kitchen. “I was making the tea,” he whispered. “Mortimer is hiding in the shed in the garden. He doesn’t do well with arguments.”

“We’ve had our hands full with other things this week,” Sir Dylan said. “We had the vampires off their heads on dragon’s blood and not knowing which way is up and trying to camp in the minster grounds. That took a bit of sorting out.”

“And there was that outbreak of scarabs at the Royal Armouries,” Sir Philip added. “They mostly dealt with it themselves but they needed a bit of cover.”

“Lord Marius should be here tomorrow with Steve Adderson and they can start scrying for Fang,” Sir Dylan said.

“I’m not a fan of magic,” Sir Philip said. “But it may be the best chance of dealing with this.”

There was a long silence. Carli strained her ears as she helped Kidder lay out the mugs on a tray. “I’ll put something aside for Mortimer,” she whispered. “He must be upset.”

Kidder nodded. “I’ve half a mind to join him,” he whispered back.

“That’s where I went wrong then,” Bron said, his voice icy in the study and exquisitely clear and controlled. “I shed my blood and take my knocks for the people here, but you won’t even consider searching for the one who killed my lover. I see where I stand.”

“Hang on,” Sir Dylan said. “Lord Marius will be here tomorrow and that will make all the difference.”

“He’s right,” Gareth added coldly. “We know exactly how important we are to you. But we shouldn’t be bothering Lord Marius. If you are happy to disregard the relationship between Violet and Bron, then it becomes a matter for the Prince, not the paladin. And this is out of Lord Marius’ domain. Those are the rules, aren’t they?”

“It’s not as simple as that,” Sir Dylan said. “This is about the Orache Stone. You can’t ignore that.”

“But you can ignore the death of my lover,” Bron said.

Carli shot a worried glance at Kidder as she got the milk from the fridge. “I really don’t like the sound of this,” she whispered.

Kidder shook his head as he pulled the almond milk from the cupboard. “Neither do I,” he whispered back.

“You cannot consider going to Lady Mary,” Sir Dylan said. “She’s a vampire and to the best of my knowledge has hardly any magic.”

“You were the one who put her in that position,” Bron said. “Did you choose to set her up to fail? Or is she the best person for that title?”

“Regardless, it’s her domain,” Gareth added. “And she can make the decisions about allowing Lord Marius access to the hunt.”

“He really won’t like that,” Sir Dylan said. “He said that he remembers the last time the Orache Stone was around and he isn’t going to let it take hold this time.”

“I remember the time as well,” Bron said. “And he did service enough, but he was just a twig then, a stripling, a youngster at the back of the crowd. And I remember what it took to take the Orache Stone last time. It took everything.”

“We’ll talk to Lady Mary and take it from there,” Gareth said. “We’ll let you know what is decided.”

“You can’t do that!” Sir Philip said. “It affects normals as well. You’ll need the Knights Templar.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Bron said with careful control. “You may be concerned with the Orache Stone and I cannot stop you seeking it. But I am concerned with the murder of Violet, and that is apparently nothing to do with you, your Knights or Lord Marius.”

Kidder jumped at the knock on the door. “Don’t go in there without me,” he whispered to Carli. “It’s getting tense.” He tiptoed past the study and opened the front door. “Ewan?” He stared at the rangy stray that was fidgeting on the step. “Is everything alright? Are you alright?”

Ewan shuddered. “This is a scary place, dog,” he said. “It’s a real scary place.”

“Are you on stuff?” Kidder asked.

“I needed a bit of help to get here,” Ewan twitched a little. “It just keeps me going and it’s not been easy.”

“Don’t stand there, come in,” Kidder said, pulling the scrawny werewolf inside. Ewan may be in cloth but he looked like a rough sleeper and there was enough curiosity from the locals as it was. “What’s the matter, dog? What are you doing here?” He pushed Ewan into the kitchen. “You need coffee.”

Ewan managed a jerky shrug. “I’m fine, just fine,” he said, looking nervously at Carli. “But I had to come and get you. You were the only one who could get through to Fang.”

“You know what Fang did to me,” Kidder said. “I’m not going back there.” He saw Ewan’s doubtful glances at Carli. “It’s okay, you can talk freely. But there’s no way I am going back there. Fang was beyond mad. It was like white jaw and the fits and rabies all mixed together. I’m good here.”

“No, dog, you gotta come back,” Ewan said earnestly. “You were the only one that Fang ever really listened to and he needs it.”

“He listened to me because I wasn’t using,” Kidder said. “And look what happened last time I tried to talk to him.”

“But it’s different, Kidder,” Ewan said. “He’s lost the stone. He’s wanting to get us all together and to go after Violet. She’s the one who stole the stone, he said. He went up there to give her the hard word, because he said she was disrespectful, and then…” Ewan’s face screwed up. “This is hard, dog. But Violet got the stone and now Fang is kind of lost, or crazy but different crazy, and you need to stop him trying to make us be a pack. It’s not right, dog.”

“Would you care to repeat that?” Bron said.

Kidder whirled around, instinctively ready to go to fur before controlling himself. “It sounds like something bad has happened,” he said. “This is Ewan,” he added, waving a hand in the direction of Ewan who was trying to hide behind Carli. “I’d say it was a trap, but Ewan isn’t like that.”

Bron stared coldly at Ewan who was trembling as he retreated towards the cabinets. “Are you sure?”

Ewan gave a yelp as his back hit a cabinet and instinctively flowed into fur. As a wolf, he was skinny and scarred, with thin, dirty fur matted on his back. He cowered, tail between his legs and his ragged ears flat. Kidder put a reassuring hand on Ewan’s head. “It’s okay,” Kidder said.

“What was that about Violet?” Sir Dylan said from behind Bron.

“The kitchen is getting crowded,” Carli said pragmatically. “Perhaps we should move into the living room. Come on, Ewan, it will be fine.” She ignored Gareth’s wary look and ran a hand over Ewan’s ears.

“If you will all wait in the living room, I’ll get Ewan back out of fur,” Kidder said. “But keep it calm, please. He’s not good with people.”

It took time and patience, but eventually Kidder brought Ewan into the living room and coaxed him into a chair near the fire. “It’s okay,” Kidder said. “You can sit here and be safe. Just tell everyone what you told me.”

Ewan shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. “It’s like I told Kidder,” he mumbled. “Fang lost the Orache Stone to Violet. He said she beat him up and chased him away. He wants to get everyone together to get it back, but I thought that Kidder could maybe talk to him because Fang isn’t right in the head.” He thought for a moment. “I mean, he was always a headcase but now he’s gone Dagenham, you know, two stations past Barking.”

“Violet is dead,” Bron said flatly.

“No, mate,” Ewan said. “Fang said that she beat him up and took that stone – and good riddance because it did him no good and it didn’t do much for anyone near him.”

“I found her remains,” Bron said. “She’s gone.”

Ewan twitched. “I don’t know about that, mate,” he said. “But Fang was in a right mess when he got back to The Iron Sickle. He was covered in blood and his paw was half hanging off. It took him ages to heal up.” He glanced nervously around the people watching. “Now he’s just sitting and muttering about the stone. And he wants us all to go with him. But Barky’s already gone back to London and I haven’t seen Fleabag around for a while either. There’s only me and Yobber and Stee that’s around regular, and we can’t deal with an elfen.”

“It sounds like he is telling the truth,” Sir Philip said quietly. He leaned carefully towards the battered werewolf. “Ewan, would you like something to eat?”

Ewan’s eyes darted around the room, waiting to see if it was a trick before cautiously nodding. “I wouldn’t say no to a biscuit or two,” he said.

“Carli, please could you get Mortimer to make something for our friend here,” Sir Philip said quietly. “And then you and Ewan and Mortimer should perhaps stay in the kitchen while we discuss this.” He nodded carefully at Ewan. “But you can leave any time you like,” Sir Philip said. “It’s just that you may like to know if Kidder will be coming around later.”

“And there’ll be food?” Ewan asked.

“I’m sure that there’ll be plenty,” Sir Philip said, nodding at Carli who stood and held the door open for Ewan.

They waited until the sound of Mortimer fussing in the kitchen reached them, then Bron closed the door. “This is all wrong,” he said.

“Ewan is convinced that Fang has lost the stone,” Kidder said. “And he’s terrified of being taken to face Violet.” He glanced across at Bron. “I’m really sorry that you’re having to deal with this,” he added.

“Thank you,” Bron said quietly. He stood and started pacing. “Mark was very clear,” he said. “I remember every word. He said explicitly that Fang had attacked Violet and then fled, taking the stone with him. There wasn’t any doubt. And there was blood all over her room.” Bron ran a hand through his hair. “I thought the blood was from Mark or from Fang where Violet had resisted.”

“Fang was going to see Violet,” Gareth said. “He overheard Mark talking about getting the stone and using it to heal Claire.” He looked at the two Knights Templar. “I overheard the end of the conversation, but I didn’t really think about it. I asked Rhys about it, but he ducked the subject. We should talk to him again.”

“I can be quite persuasive,” Bron said.

Sir Philip looked thoughtful. “We should speak to Fang first,” he said. “As we’re going into Lady Mary’s domain, we need to get her permission and her aid if possible. We should be able to shake some answers out there.”

“If Fang has any sanity left, that is,” Bron said. “It’s a cruel toy, the Orache Stone, and from what Ewan said, there isn’t much of the old werewolf left.” He frowned. “If Fang doesn’t have the stone, if Ewan is right, then Violet had the stone when Mark was there.”

“I’ve known Mark Davies for years,” Sir Dylan said. “He’s always been pretty steady but he’s had a tough time recently with his wife.”

“She died the day before yesterday,” Kidder said quietly. “Rhys was called away to deal with things.”

“We should have a whiteboard in here,” Gareth said. “But let me try and get some sort of timeline. Violet was murdered three days ago. Mark said that he chased Fang away but couldn’t save Violet but Ewan said that Violet chased Fang away and didn’t mention Mark.”

“There’s no point talking to Mark at the moment,” Kidder said. “From what Rhys said, Claire died two days ago and Mark’s been mad with grief. I know that Luke is sorting out normal security, but Rhys wanted me to keep a proper watch over things, like a good wolf, so he handed over to me, in a way.”

“Mark could have taken the stone,” Bron said, his voice drained of all emotion. “If he reached Violet when she was weakened after battle, and she would have been weakened if she had fought the holder of the Orache Stone and won, then…” his voice trailed off.

Unnervingly, Gareth continued. “Mark could have taken the stone for himself, to try and heal Claire. But he would have been too late.”

“That would mean that he murdered Violet,” Sir Dylan said. “And that now involves two domains and two princes.”

“You can’t go rushing in and accusing him,” Kidder said. “It sounds like the pack is a mess after Claire’s death.”

“If Mark has the stone then we can’t leave it too long either,” Bron said. “The stone will be taking over.”

Sir Philip stood and stretched. “We call Lady Mary and then speak to Fang,” he said. “Lord Marius and Steve Adderson will be available tomorrow if we need to ask Mark some hard questions later. I don’t think that there will be anything to gain if we interrupt a funeral.” He reached over and put a hand on Bron’s shoulder. “If it’s the murder of an elfen by a werewolf, we shouldn’t interfere. It’s supposed to be strictly non-normal. But with the Orache Stone being involved, we have a reason to be part of it. Whatever happens, we’ll stand with you.”

Bron swallowed and then nodded. “Thank you,” he said. “He turned and stared into the fire. “I wouldn’t want to interfere with someone else’s grief. Perhaps the madness has taken Fang so far that he’s forgotten he has the damned stone.”

“I’ll give Lady Mary a call,” Sir Dylan said. “And then we can pay a visit to Fang. Things should be clearer after that.”

Chapter Sixteen

Rhys had reluctantly moved into Mark’s office, at least until after the funeral and Mark could take over. The whole business was turning his fur grey. The mood in the pack was uncertain and Rhys didn’t think that any change to the leadership would help right now. Mark was as twitchy as a cat in a dog pound, and Rhys didn’t feel like tugging on his tail. It would be a lot easier, Rhys thought, if Mark would just have a snarl around and reminded everyone who was in charge.

Rhys slumped behind Mark’s desk. With Mark being absent so much, first looking after Claire and now guarding her body almost every hour of the day, it had put Rhys firmly in charge of sorting out the funeral and the memorial, while still keeping track of the planning permission for the new builds in Garforth and the renovations over in Middleton. On top of that, he felt a lingering duty to the mill over in Yeadon and he wondered about Surjit. They had had a good time at Bolton Abbey, but he hadn’t had much time to do more than text over the last few days.  

Stella bustled in. “I’ve started making the food,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t five hundred for the cremation, what with all the packs near here and people sending their condolences in person. I’ll need some men to take the chiller van to the farm.”

“Can’t Stacy and Leah drive it?” Rhys said. “They’ve both got licences.”

“You mean, apart from all the women getting caught up in the cooking?” Stella said. “I hate to say that we need a strong man to help us, but we’ll be picking up a lot of meat. A full bull’s carcass weighs a ton. I mean, almost literally. We won’t be just picking up beef either.”

“We could always pick up some frozen stuff from the wholesalers,” Rhys said.

“Mark would have a fit,” Stella said. “He likes to have feasts prepared the traditional way. And he had a point. It’s part of the way that the women come together and makes it more of a communal thing. It helps us feel useful.” She leaned over the desk and patted his arm. “Don’t worry too much. We’ve got plenty of stuff in the freezers and pantries.”

Rhys pulled his notebook towards him and made another note. “I’ll send Shaun and Dev with you,” he said. “They’re strong enough and won’t chase the sheep.”

“And they’ve got the sense to do what I say,” Stella said smugly.

Rhys continued jotting. “We’ll need to get the big marquees out of storage,” he said. “We can’t trust the weather at this time of year. I’ll get Alex and Tim to check out the heaters as well.” He looked down at the drift of papers scattered over the desk. “I’m going to have to get some of the lads pulling double duty. Between setting up and covering the work, we’re going to be stretched.”

“The women can cover most of the set up,” Stella said. “I know how you’ve been having trouble in Armley and have a lot on your plate with the job in Middleton. If you can deliver the marquees and the chairs and tables, we can cover the rest.”

Rhys managed a weary smile. “Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate that.” And that was another thing. Mark had kept the women very much in the kitchen, but time and again they had proved how capable they were. He should have a word when things calmed down. “I’ll get the extra space heaters out as well, just in case,” he said. “Half of them will be in fur anyway, but it’s better to be sure. And we’ll need to order in the drinks.”

“And we’ll need plenty of that,” Stella said. She hesitated. “Mark hasn’t said anything, has he?”

Rhys knew what the question meant. Mark should have been sorting this out. It should have been him deciding on what food to serve and who to send for the stuff in storage while keeping the business going. And Stella had been less than impressed when it had been Rhys talking to the minister and floundering around trying to work out what readings and hymns should be included. Rhys didn’t want to be entangled with those kind of questions, though. “Mark’s upset,” he said. “And he’s been guarding Claire.” His sharp ears caught footsteps approaching before the sharp rap on the door. “Come in,”

To Rhys’ relief, it was the undertaker rushing in and not Mark. “What’s this about Claire being moved?” he said. “The cremation is supposed to be tomorrow night but Mark has cancelled it.”

“What?” Rhys said, staring. “I don’t know anything about it.”

“He can’t just cancel,” Stella said. “We’ve got hundreds of guests coming.”

“He said to ring him if you have questions,” the undertaker said. “But he didn’t answer any of mine. He just told me that a private ambulance would be collecting Claire later this afternoon.”

Rhys pulled out his phone and called Mark. “Hi, the undertaker is here,” Rhys said. “And he’s not making sense.”

Mark’s voice was raspy over the phone. “I’ve found a better way of remembering Claire,” he said. “The cremation’s on hold.”

“Mark, are you okay?” Rhys said. “This isn’t normal, this isn’t right.”

“Just pay off the undertaker and wait,” Mark said. “And I’m sending someone for Claire’s things.”

“Mark, I know that you’re grieving, but you can’t just give away Claire’s stuff without catching a breath,” Rhys said. “You’re not thinking clearly. You should wait a little while before making big decisions.” He exchanged a worried glance with Stella. “And we have a few hundred guests coming. Some will already have set off. We can’t cancel it all.”

“Just sort it out,” Mark said. “I’ll be back in a week or two.”

“You can’t just vanish for a week!” Rhys said. “We’re going to be sinking as it is.”

“I’m sending you a picture of the man coming to collect Claire’s things,” Mark said. “Let him get what he wants from her room. And just sort it all out.”

Rhys stared at his phone. “He hung up. And he’s sending someone to collect Claire’s things.”

“What are we going to do?” Stella asked.

“And what’s happening with Claire?” the undertaker said. “You can’t keep the remains of a werewolf too long or people will be getting too interested, if you know what I mean.”

“I’m sorry that you’ve been put out like this,” Rhys said, trying to be diplomatic. “I’ll be in touch with you as soon as I find out more.”

“I understand,” the undertaker said. “Grief can affect people in strange ways. I’ve known Mark a long time, and he’s always been too intense for his own good. This was never going to be easy for him.”

Rhys glanced at the picture that Mark sent. The image of a tall, dark haired man gave him an uneasy feeling, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. Still, that wasn’t the only worry. “Stella, we’re going to have to go ahead with the gathering tomorrow,” he said. “Too many people will have already set out and it’s going to be chaos trying to change plans. Just do your best and we’ll call it a remembrance. Perhaps a couple of us can make speeches. It will be a bit like the memorial but it can’t be helped.”

“What do we tell people about Mark?” Stella asked.

“I’ll think of something,” Rhys said.

“You’ll have to,” she said. “Or the pack will look weak.”

“Stella is unfortunately correct,” the undertaker said. “There is already talk in the area.”

“We’re not weak, and we’re doing fine,” Rhys said. “I’ll think of something.”

Stella shook her head. “I think you need to make decisions about more than the cremation,” she said. “People are looking to you now.”

“This isn’t the time for that sort of talk,” Rhys said. “Mark’s been caught up with Claire and it’s taken a toll. But he’ll be back just as strong, taking charge and getting us all jumping.” He stopped and stared at the figure getting out of the black Mercedes that had just stopped in their car park. It was the man coming to collect Claire’s belongings and while he looked so completely ordinary, from his neat hair to his business style shoes, every instinct in Rhys was screaming that this was danger and death and all the wrongness. He fought to stay out of fur, his lips curling in a reflexive snarl, and he could see Stella fighting the same instincts. The undertaker glanced between them and backed slowly out of the room before turning and running.

“Get everyone out of the way,” Rhys growled to Stella through clenched teeth. “Get the kids into the back field. I’ll come when it’s gone.”

*****

“It’s all quiet,” Bron said as they met Lady Mary in a shaded spot away from The Iron Sickle. “There doesn’t seem to be much activity at all.”

“There wouldn’t be much at this time,” Lady Mary said. “It’s 8pm on a Sunday night. It’s not the most popular time for drinking.” She looked at Tyler. “Are you okay?”

Tyler nodded. “Too much is changing,” he said softly.

Lady Mary looked over to Bron where he stood with Sir Dylan and Sir Philip. “I am bringing my authority here,” she said. “But Tyler is in charge. He will be dealing with the werewolves.” She looked around. “I notice that Kidder isn’t here.”

“He’s with Ewan back at the cottage,” Bron said. “He’s with us, now, and he isn’t going to cause trouble. And you can’t expect him to go after Fang, not after what happened last time.”

“And will you be in control of yourself, Bron the Ancient?” Lady Mary asked. “This is personal for you, isn’t it?”

“I just want the truth,” Bron said coldly. “And then I’ll want justice. I know the difference between justice and vengeance, and I’ll grieve in my own way.” He glanced around the group. “Shall we?” He turned and, without waiting for the others, marched straight up to the doors of The Iron Sickle and pushed his way inside.

The pub was silent as Bron stalked up to the bar, followed by the rest of the group. The lights were dim and the half dozen or so drinkers were spaced widely around the bar, hunched over their drinks. The clock behind the bar ticked loudly. “Where’s Fang?” Bron asked.

There was no reply. Tyler stalked up to the bar and slammed his hand down onto the counter. The drinkers flinched as he glared around. “Where is Fang?” he snapped. “I’m taking over and I’ve come to challenge him. Show me!”

An older werewolf pointed hesitantly and Tyler paced slowly towards the unlit corner. “Fang, show yourself!” he called. “”Meet the challenge.”

“If he still has the Orache Stone, this could go very badly,” Sir Dylan murmured to Sir Philip.

“And that’s why we’re here,” Sir Philip murmured back.

Bron shot them a look and followed Tyler as he slid out of his jacket. “And you’re to answer to me, boyo,” he called. He hooked his jacket over the back of a chair and stood at Tyler’s shoulder. “Who killed Violet, Fang?”

Tyler held up his hand and turned to the bartender. “Why are the lights out?” he asked.

The bartender swallowed. “The orders were to keep it dark,” he said.

Tyler smiled coldly. “And my orders are to switch on all the lights,” he said. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with.”

“These lot don’t look like they’re going to be trouble,” Sir Dylan murmured to Sir Philip as he glanced around the drinkers. “But we stick back to back and give them space to run if they want to.”

Sir Philip gave a slight nod. “They look like they’re more likely to run than fight, but who can tell,” he said, glancing swiftly around the room. “We can fall back to the slot machine. That looks stable enough to have at our backs.”

The bartender edged along the bar and started flicking switches. The drinkers squinted at the bright light and one fled the bar. “Let him go, for now,” Tyler said. “I want to see Fang.”

As the lights reached the corner, Tyler recoiled. The shape sitting there was barely recognisable. Fang was in cloth, his human form emaciated and his eyes blank. His tangled hair was wild and he pushed himself back into the bench as he flinched at the light. “Not me, not me,” he mumbled. “It’s my stone, my stone, I said it was and she wasn’t saying. I said it was mine.” Drool ran down his chin. “She said she knew how to use it, but didn’t say. It’s mine, mine and she should have told me. She took it. I fought but she took it, old lady bitch.” Fang’s thin hands clenched and unclenched. “She should have told me. She threw me away. Hurt me, hurt me with silver even though it was my stone.”

Bron pushed past Tyler and grabbed the creature’s shirt, hauling him to his feet and staring into what was left of him. “He lost the stone,” Bron said. “He lost it, but after it had taken his mind.” He tossed the werewolf onto the floor in front of the bar. “Ewan was right. Fang fought Violet and lost.” He looked up to Tyler. “He’s all yours.”

“You’re giving me the job of justice?” Tyler said. “Are you going soft?”

“Violet would still be here if she hadn’t been weakened,” Bron said. “And I’m not sure I’d know when to stop.” He looked at Fang who was drivelling at his feet. “It wouldn’t be a fair fight, and the werewolf pack needs justice.”

“We’re not a pack,” a skinny lad next to the bar said, then winced as he regretted speaking up.

“You are now,” Tyler said. “You acted enough like a pack under Fang, so now you can be a pack under me and I’ll sort you out.” He kicked out at Fang, who whimpered. “I’ll start here.”

“I’ll be off now,” Bron said. “But here’s something.” He picked up his jacket and pulled out a box which he placed on the bar. Opening it, he took out a purple orchid. “It’s the wrong type of year for violet flowers,” Bron said. “But Violet, the elfen who would be alive but for this, should be remembered, as a little bit of justice. I can rely on you all here to keep her memory and a memento behind the bar, can’t I?” There was steel in his tone.

Tyler nodded. “That sounds fair enough,” he said. “Now, all non werewolves should leave now. Things are going to get interesting.”

Bron, Lady Mary and the Knights Templar left and walked across the road and down to a small park. The distance helped to muffle the screaming now coming from the bar. Lady Mary looked Bron up and down. “That was a sensible decision,” she said. “It must have taken a great deal of effort.”

Bron shrugged. “I could be inventive, but I don’t have the time,” he said. “I have to speak to Mark Davies.”

Lady Mary tapped her elegant finger on her chin, ignoring the frantic howls coming from The Iron Sickle. “That could be problematic,” she said. “The cremation is tomorrow night, and several hundred are expected to attend the pack house afterwards. You are formidable, Bron, but even you would struggle with those odds. I believe some have already arrived.”

“He can’t be allowed access to several hundred wolves with the Orache Stone,” Bron said urgently. “Do you want that many werewolves ravaging through Leeds? The bloodshed could be horrific.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” Lady Mary said. “Regardless, you can’t challenge Mark Davies in front of several hundred werewolves at the cremation of his wife. If possible, you need to wait a day or two, until the last puppy has gone home.” She looked at Sir Dylan. “I believe that there will be a contingent of Knights Templars present,” she said. “And several high ranking elfen will also be paying their respects, including Lord Marius and Steve Adderson. It should be possible to deflect any trouble even if we can’t stop it completely.”

“I’ll put a general alert out,” Sir Dylan said. “The top brass at Lincoln were already waiting for a call. We’ll make sure that we have reinforcements ready.”

“I’ll bide my time and be ready,” Bron said. “I’m not an idiot.” He looked around the group as the snarls and growls behind them grew. “But I still get that son of a bitch, right? I still get Mark Davies.”

Chapter Eighteen

You can read the story from the beginning here

“So you haven’t heard from Rhys?” Carli asked, leaning over the reception desk. “It might not mean anything. I heard that he’s got a lot of family problems at the moment.”

Surjit managed a shrug that almost looked unconcerned. “I’ve texted him loads of times,” she said. “But he hasn’t even checked.”

“Gareth says that he’s really, really, busy,” Carli said. She hated seeing Surjit so despondent.

Surjit’s shoulders slumped. “I really like him,” she admitted. “And he can be such a gentleman, but it’s no good. I’m not getting involved with that sort of drama. If it’s so bad that he can’t text then I don’t want to get caught up in it.”

Carli thought about the mess that the werewolves were in. “Perhaps it’s just as well,” she said. “Anyway, maybe you should speak to Alan in the warehouse. He seems nice, and I noticed that he couldn’t take his eyes off you in the canteen yesterday.”

Surjit managed a smile. “I’ll think about it,” she said. “So what are you doing down here apart from fixing my love life?”

“I’m just getting a sweater from my car,” Carli said. “I’ve brought in an extra space heater, but I’m freezing. The cold just rattles through the office.”

“You wait until it gets really cold,” Surjit said. “The windows in the office ice up. Last year when we had the cold snap, the sales team ended up working in the dyer’s room and most of the post was handled in a corner of the finishing room.” She grinned. “But with all the new stuff, I don’t know how that will turn out. Perhaps Luke might actually force himself to pay out for new windows.”

Carli chuckled, then shivered as she headed for the door. “I’ll be back in a second.”

She scurried across the car park and over to her modest hatchback. Why did she have to park all the way over here? She clicked the car key fob and nothing happened. Instincts started to prickle and she slowed down. She felt for her phone in her pocket and glanced around. She couldn’t see anyone, but that meant nothing. She dialled a quick number. “Gareth, could you come to the car park. I’m sure something’s off,” she said. There was no reply as Gareth hung up straight away. Carli hoped that meant he was coming straight down from the office. She approached the car cautiously. The cold light didn’t show any shadows under the car. She clicked the key fob to unlock the car again. Nothing happened. She glanced back at the entrance. She could glimpse Gareth through the inset glass panes in the wide doors. Surjit had caught his arm, no doubt still complaining about Rhys, but he would soon be here. Carli opened the back door and reached in for the sweater, glancing over her shoulder to see if Gareth was closer, then crying out with shock as someone grabbed her hand and pulled her hard into the car.

“Hello, Carli,” Rick said.

“What are you doing?” Carli snapped, struggling away from him. “You were told that you couldn’t come near me.”

“That was just them being jealous,” the young werewolf said. “You are my mate, my soulmate, my twin flame. We’re meant to be together.”

“No we’re not,” Carli said. “Please, just leave me alone.” Her voice cracked as she tried to pull free. “Just leave me alone.”

“You don’t understand,” Rick said. “We were good together, you remember.”

“I never dated you,” Carli said. “You just got it into your head. And you frightened off my boyfriend and scared my mother.”

“He wasn’t meant for you,” Rick said. “And your mother was just interfering. Let me take you to the wolf side.”

“No!” Carli cried. “Listen, your pack leader, he was supposed to keep you from following me. He was supposed to stop you. And you were warned.”

“They didn’t mean it really,” Rick said with a wide grin, his teeth lengthening as he spoke. “Besides, Chris is busy with that shitshow of the Leeds pack. He reckons that they’re going to change leaders and he’s there for the entertainment. And we’re not in Chris’s territory now. It’s down to the Leeds pack leader to make the rules, and they are kind of busy. There’s not even a paladin here. So no-one can come between us. Just admit it, babe, you know that you are drawn to my wild side. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I’ve got a boyfriend,” Carli said. “And we’re not in Leeds territory. It’s the Otley pack in charge here.”

“No such thing,” Rick said. He reached over and pulled the keys from her unresisting hand. “Get in the car. We’re going to drive to your flat and you’re going to show me how much you’ve missed me and how much you’re sorry that you’ve played so hard to get.” His grin got wider. “Let’s have some fun. I’ve got wine in the back.”

“No!” Carli said, struggling harder. She pulled her arm free and backed away slowly. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” She looked over her shoulder and felt relief wash over her as she saw Gareth stalking across towards her. Behind him, Surjit was on the phone, pale faced and shocked and talking frantically. “That’s my boyfriend.”

“You prefer him me?” Rick asked incredulously. “Are you on glue? He’s just a skinny lad and nothing compared to me.” He pulled himself out of the car and slid out of his leather jacket. He flexed his muscles under the tight t-shirt. “I could break him in half without even going to fur. And does he know about the beast? I’m disappointed in you, Carli. I thought you had better taste.”

Carli looked back at Gareth. There was purpose in every step and his jacket had been wound around his left arm. He had a small knife in his right hand, held straight down and parallel with his thigh and he was gently rolling his shoulders and neck as he approached. Carli thought back to Gareth when she first met him and how he was now, with the extra layer of taut muscle and the experience of far too many brawls. He was still slim compared to the thickset brawn of Rick, though, and Carli’s heart sank as she could see no trace of Bron. “He’s kind, and gentle, and he is incredibly creative,” she said. “And he has a lot inside of him.”

“I’ll sure to have a good look when I rip him to pieces,” Rick said. He pushed Carli to one side. “Keep out of the way, now, bitch. The men are talking.”

Gareth stalked up. “Get your hands off her,” he said coldly.

“Or what, shrimp?” Rick laughed. “Do you know what I am?”

“You’re a pathetic puppy,” Gareth said, the ice in his voice unchanged. “Do you know what I am?”

Rick didn’t get a chance to answer as Gareth stepped forward, telegraphing a blow to the head before stamping hard on the werewolf’s knee. Rick howled as his knee buckled, bringing his ribs within easy range of Gareth’s fist as he swung hard into Rick, punching deep and with purpose. Rick staggered back, swinging a wild punch that Gareth ducked with ease. “Don’t make me go to fur,” Rick yelled. “Carli – tell him what happens if I go to fur.”

“He knows,” Carli said as her stalker glared at Gareth. “He really does.”

Rick grimaced and started to change. Gareth didn’t wait but instead stepped into Rick’s reach, grabbing an arm and twisting it hard against the joint before slamming Rick’s head hard into the car roof. The sound echoed around the car park along with Rick’s howl as he writhed in Gareth’s hold. Still struggling to change, Rick kicked wildly back, catching Gareth’s thigh with a glancing boot. It failed to break Gareth’s hold, and he slammed Rick’s head down hard again. Ignoring Carli’s faint scream in the background, Gareth plunged the knife into Rick’s shoulder.

“It’s silver, mutt,” Gareth said. “You won’t change yet.” He released his hold on the knife, leaving it sticking obscenely out of Rick’s shoulder and punched Rick hard again in the ribs. “You need to learn that when a woman says ‘no’, she means ‘no’ and that’s when you walk away.

Rick screamed. “It’s silver! It’s fucking silver! Get it out! Get it out!” He fell hard to his knees and whimpered.

Gareth kicked Rick hard in the head. “Carli told me about you,” he said. “But did she have a chance to tell you about me?” He kicked Rick in the ribs. “I’m the paladin.” He grabbed Rick’s hair and threw him hard against the car. “But I’m playing nice until the local pack leader gets here.” He rolled Rick onto his front, the knife still wedged into the shoulder.

“They’ll come for you,” Rick said, panting. “And they’ll rip you into shreds. There’s no Prince to protect you.” He gasped as Gareth kicked him again.

“There’s always a prince with a paladin,” Gareth said. “And I think that you need to understand me. You stay away from Carli. Don’t try and convince yourself that she’s into you, or being shy, or playing hard to get. She’s not yours.” Gareth pushed Rick’s face hard into the dirt of the car park. “And she’s not mine, either. She belongs to herself and she has chosen not to be with you. So don’t come sniffing around here again, or I won’t be so gentle.”

“I’ll be ready next time, paladin,” Rick said. “Carli needs to be with me.”

Gareth knelt on Rick’s damaged shoulder. “If there’s a next time,” he said. “Because the local pack leader is on their way and Tyler is out for blood.” He leant forward, shifting his weight across the damaged joint as Rick howled. “Tyler feels that he owes Carli,” Gareth said. “And I think he may want to send a message.”

A white van raced down the street, swaying wildly as it swung into the car park and screeched to a halt, blocking the view between the factory and Rick. Tyler jumped out and grimaced at the sight of Rick, bloody and battered on the floor. Sir Philip jumped out of the passenger side and came around.

“Thanks for coming,” Gareth said. “You made good time.”

“We were just up the road anyway,” Tyler said. He nodded go Gareth. “You can let him go now.”

Gareth pulled the knife from Rick’s shoulder and wiped it deliberately on Rick’s shirt before standing. “I thought I should be clear,” he said.

“Bron?” Sir Philip said uncertainly. “Thank you for calling in Tyler and not dealing with it yourself. It saves on the paperwork.”

“It’s nothing to do with me, lad,” Bron said, making Tyler jump. “I thought the lad should deal with it on his own as it’s his lass that was affected.” Bron looked approvingly as Tyler hauled Rick up and pushed him against the side of the van. “He did a good job, and used more restraint that I would.”

“I wondered about that,” Sir Philip said. He looked over to Carli. “Are you okay? I’m sorry I didn’t realise that Rick had come up with the delegation. Perhaps Gareth can take you back into the mill and you can have a cup of coffee and rest for a moment.”

“He won’t bother you again, miss,” Tyler said with an edged finality. “I’ll make sure of that.” He opened the back door of the van and threw the young werewolf in. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

Carli shook her head. “Gareth got here really quickly,” she said, her lips trembling as she fought back the reaction to the shock. “What’s going to happen?”

“Gareth is going to look after you,” Tyler said. “And this mutt isn’t going to bother you ever again. That’s a promise.” He looked over to Gareth. “You need to be at the memorial tonight over at the Leeds pack house. There’s a lot going on, and they could use an outside view.”

“I’ll be there,” Gareth promised. He reached over and pulled out the sweater from the back of Carli’s car. “Come on, I’ll get you a nice cup of coffee,” he said, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders. He looked ruefully at the dent in the car roof. “I’ll get the car sorted out as well,” he said.

“It’s okay,” Bron said. “I know a garage that owes me a favour.”

Carli managed a chuckle. “Of course you do,” she said, clinging onto Gareth.

Tyler nodded. “I’ll send Kidder and Mortimer to meet you from work and take you to the citadel,” he said to Carli. “I’ll tell them to make a fuss of you.” He looked at Gareth. “Thanks for dealing with this properly. We’ll talk later.” Then he shut Sir Philip in with the whimpering Rick, climbed into the cab and drove off.

Gareth and Carli turned back to the mill to see Surjit standing, horrified at them. “You’re good with words,” Carli said to Gareth. “Please think of something that we can tell her.”

Chapter Nineteen

Image from Unsplash, taken by Daniel Mirlea

“So how did you end up on the naughty table?” the boggart asked. “I’m Phil Neston, by the way, and I’m sort of a representative for the local boggarts.”

“I’m Gareth Peterson,” Gareth said. “I’m the paladin from Otley.

“And I’m Bron,” Bron added. “And I may be the reason we’re in the corner.” Phil blinked slowly at the dual voices and then shrugged.

“Not because he’s an ancient bronze age warrior whose spirit was called into me,” Gareth said. “But because he needs to be kept calm if Mark turns up.”

The third man, hard faced and hard muscled, raised an eyebrow. “Won’t Mark be here?” he asked. “I’m Ian Tait, by the way, the leader of a sub pack in York and here to represent Kieran from the overpack. I’m probably in the corner because I summoned a demon once and it still makes people twitchy.”

“You don’t make a habit of it, do you?” Bron said, looking at him thoughtfully.

Ian grimaced. “It was only once and that was by accident.” He waved a dismissive hand. “But what’s all this about Mark?”

Gareth answered. “Mark’s gone missing,” he said, picking his words with care. “And he needs to answer a few questions about how Violet died, and the whereabouts of the Orache Stone.”

Phil raised an eyebrow. “It’s pretty cut and dried from what I heard. Lord Marius has a lot of questions. Anyway, the point is that Mark’s missing.”

“Bron was close to Violet, years ago,” Gareth continued. “So he’s upset about her death. And he was the one who dealt with the Orache Stone the first time around.”

“I was talking with Steve about that,” Ian said. “We were kicking some ideas about getting it destroyed.”

“I didn’t know that werewolves did magic,” Bron said, looking Ian up and down.

“Most of us don’t,” Ian said. “I’m also a qualified plumber and there’s not many werewolves in that trade either.” He held Bron’s gaze. “But I’ve done my penance and me and Steve were talking about some work arounds. It’s elfen magic, from the sound of it.”

Bron nodded. “But it’s elfen magic that called to werewolves, bedded into the hills near Ilkley and seriously nasty. It drives the owner mad.”

“And Mark was…” Phil looked around the huge marquee filled with sharp eared werewolves. “Mark was already being driven mad with grief.”

“I’m sure I’ll listen closely to his excuses,” Bron said, icy sarcasm dripping from every word.

“So if Mark turns up, Bron needs to keep cool,” Gareth said.

“And I suppose that’s why we’re next to you both,” Phil said. “Just in case Mark turns up.”

“This isn’t the time or place,” Ian said. “But perhaps we can have a talk afterwards. I’d be interested in your experiences. Steve said that he couldn’t contain it.”

Bron nodded. “Sure, but hang on, it’s the toast.” He raised his glass of whiskey and water.

Rhys stood on the dais, a glass in hand, his eyes shadowed as he reached the end of the eulogy. “To Claire,” he said, raising his glass and then swallowing the drink.

“To Claire,” the room responded.

Rhys looked around. “And that’s the end of the formalities,” he said. “Now it’s time to eat, drink, remember Claire, remember old friends and family and come together. The buffet is open at the back.”

“Not so fast,” Mark stepped into the marquee, followed by three strangers.  “Rhys, get out. I’m exiling you from the pack.”

Gareth could feel the tension racing around the space. “What’s going on?” he murmured to Phil.

“Rhys has been running the pack unofficially for the last two years,” Phil murmured back. “Mark now sees him as a threat.” He grimaced. “Mark owes Rhys everything and Rhys has been nothing but loyal. It shows what the Orache Stone can do to you.”

“It’s not the effect of the Orache Stone,” Bron said as he stood. “He was heading down this path long before he got hold of that. No, this is Mark – a mad dog without a leash.”

“That could have been put better,” Ian said. He glanced around the tent and was unnerved to see that a lot of the werewolves agreeing with Bron. “Who are the goons with him?”

“I think one of them is a mad magician called Edragor,” Phil said. He caught hold of Bron’s arm. “This is a challenge that Rhys needs to answer. If there’s anything left of Mark afterwards, I’ll give it to you to play with.”

“Seems fair,” Bron growled. “Rhys seems halfway decent and the pack doesn’t deserve turmoil. And Mark waited until Violet was weakened before he attacked.”

“This Edragor,” Ian murmured. “I think I’ve heard the name. But there’s something going on…”

“I’m going nowhere,” Rhys said. “You owe me.”

“I said, get out, pup,” Mark said. He looked around the tent. “I’ve got plans, big plans, and the power to put them into practice. Claire will be back any day now, and between us, we’ll put things right.” He turned to Lord Marius. “And why are the werewolves always knocked back? Why aren’t there any werewolf princes? We need to know our worth.”

Lord Marius stood and put a little space between him and Rhys. “A prince isn’t an easy position,” he said. “And a few centuries of experience help. Werewolves don’t live long enough.”

“But you’re not a proper prince, are you?” Mark said. “You have no real authority in this tent. It’s just the pack, and I say that Rhys goes.” He glared around the tent. “Throw him out,” he snapped at the nearest men.

A shudder ran through Ian. He turned and grabbed Stella. “Get the women and cubs out of here now,” he said desperately. “Quickly! And you can help her.” He grabbed a gangling werewolf teenager and thrust him towards Stella. “Get the cubs and women out of here and get them somewhere safe!”

“What do you mean, Claire will be back?” Rhys said. “Mark, I’m sorry, but she’s gone.”

“Edragor, what is the meaning of this?” Lord Marius said sharply. “I do not permit necromancy.”

Edragor stepped forward, a mocking smile on his thin lips. “You are not the true prince,” he said. He looked around the marquee. “How many here have as good a claim as you? And no-one can interfere with pack matters.”

Ian stepped forward. “You’ve brought wraiths with you! Everyone – keep back!”

“Wraiths?” Gareth looked at Ian who was kicking the legs off a chair. “What the hell?”

“Don’t touch them,” Phil said, picking up a trestle table and hefting it carefully. “And don’t let them touch you. They drain your life force.”

“Edragor!” roared Lord Marius. “How dare you!”

“This is my hall, Lord Marius,” Mark said. “And I say get out.” He looked at the surrounding werewolves. “Throw them all out. Throw everyone out that isn’t one of that pack. And that includes Rhys.”

“No,” an older werewolf said, staring straight back at Mark.

Gareth felt himself pushed out of the way as Bron took over. “You’re not ready for this,” Bron said, glancing around and picking up a chair. Gareth watched helplessly as Phil hurled the table at the figures behind Edragor. It caught one of them on the arm and, to Gareth’s horrified shock, it crumbled to ash. Screams rang around the marquee as the few remaining cubs and women were hustled out of the back. The old werewolf snapped out orders to fetch scaffolding poles as tables and chairs were grabbed for shields.

“Your call,” Steve yelled over to Ian. “You know this stuff best.” Ian grimaced and nodded, holding up a hand. Gareth, helpless as Bron advanced with the chair, watched Steve throw a rope of sparkling green magic. It arched across the space over the heads of the werewolves, twisting and splitting as it writhed towards Ian. Ian caught it and swore as he shuddered, trying to control it.

“I’ve got it!” Ian yelled, hauling the green energy into his grasp.

Mark snarled and went to fur, diving at Rhys. Rhys stayed out of fur for a moment, grabbing Mark and using his momentum to run him head first into the edge of the dais. Mark howled and struggled as Rhys kicked him hard in the ribs. “Get rid of Edragor!” Rhys yelled.

“My pleasure,” Lord Marius snarled, advancing on Edragor.

Ian wrapped the power around his fist and then whirled his arm around, flinging the energy out towards the wraiths like a whip. “They’re tough!” he yelled.

Rhys went to fur and lunged in, fangs bared as Mark yowled, twisting away. He was trying to change back from fur but Rhys was going in hard. “Don’t let him use the Orache Stone,” Steve called. “I’m pulling more power, Ian. Brace!”

Ian caught the ball of green light in his free hand and seemed to feed it into the existing store, flicking the power out again and again to lash against the wraiths. Bron stalked closer to the whirling, snapping ball of fur. “I’m waiting, Mark,” he snarled.

The wolf flinched and fought to break free. As Phil threw another table at the fading wraiths, Lord Marius stepped closer to Edragor and snapped out a flash of blue light. Edragor deflected it into the wall of the marquee and flames shot up over the canvas.

“Everyone out!” Phil yelled. “Rhys, you need to get your people out of here. Ian – how are you doing?”

Ian was muttering under his breath, before yelling. “Discedite tenebris!” More energy shot from his hands and wreathed the wraiths in green fire. He sagged as they crumbled into shadows and slipped out through the flames. Phil picked Ian up bodily and raced towards the back exit. “Bron, Marius, get out of here.”

Gareth felt Bron’s hesitation, then saw Edragor reach out and grab a wolf by the scruff, then vanish. Lord Marius vanished after him and then it was him following Steve out of the tent as extinguishers hissed against the flames. “I’ll get him next time,” said Bron.

Chapter Twenty

Luke wasn’t exactly sure what had been happening in the non-normal community. All he knew was that Gareth was turning up at his desk with more bruises than usual, Rhys had disappeared and that Surjit had very reasonably handed in her notice. Now he was faced with a smooth talking businessman who he suspected knew more than he should about practically everything and had an uneasy feeling that he was coming a serious second in negotiations.

“Are you sure that these will sell?” Luke asked sceptically. He looked down at the crazed patterns. It looked like a colourblind hippy had taken a wild trip and vomited random colours over the board.

“Trust me,” Steve said. “If you can deliver the blankets in these colourways, I’ll want 500 up front and options on another 500 by Christmas. And if you can provide a few different colourways in similar styles, I’d like to take an option on those as well.”

Luke ran a hand over his thinning hair. “I thought that the Fair Folk would like all soft colours and greens and natural shades,” he said plaintively.

“Why?” Steve said in bewilderment. “Oh, they’re not like the stories.” He thought for a moment. “Well, they’re not like the nice stories. And these days they’re very rarely like the bad stories.” Steve thought for a moment. “Especially if they’re worried about being caught. Listen, it’s a good deal, and if you keep it exclusive then I’m happy to keep the price up.”

Luke looked again at the eye-jarring colours. “I’ll keep it exclusive,” he said. It was the sort of blanket that he couldn’t even donate. He’d get blacklisted by homeless shelters.

“Try it in monochrome,” Steve said. “I don’t need to have that tied into the exclusivity clause.”

Luke frowned as he checked over the pattern. “Yes, that would work,” he said. Years of working with textiles had honed his instincts. “I can see it with scarves, sweaters and skirts,” he said. “In fact, there are a few different garments that could work. I can get some samples ready for you if you like?”

Steve looked at the discordant design. “I can’t see it myself, but I’ll take your word for it,” he said. “By the way, if you’re looking for a new receptionist, I know someone who’s looking for a job.”

Luke felt a shiver of unease. “Are they like Rhys?” he asked.

Steve grinned. “Yes, she’s a werewolf, but she’s not likely to cause any trouble. Her boyfriend’s moved to Leeds and she’s looking for a job so she can join him. She’s a sweet kid, and no trouble at all.”

“What sort of experience does she have?” Luke asked. On the one hand, this meant that he wouldn’t have to go through the tedious and nerve wracking process of posting job adverts and interviewing. On the other hand, things were weird enough. “And is she, well, safe, you know?”

“She’s fine,” Steve said. “And Kidder hasn’t been a problem, has he?”

Luke had to admit that Kidder was turning out to be one of the best employees he’d had. He kept his head down, did his work and was no trouble. He’d been talking about organising a work’s football team, but that wasn’t the worst thing he could do. “Is she a bit older?” Luke asked cautiously. “It’s just that my sales staff can be a bit rowdy and I don’t want someone who gets upset.” Surjit had told them where to go when they started messing around. She’d also included a few explicit directions for good measure.

“Jasmine is fine,” Steve said. “She can be a bit shy, but she’s devoted to her boyfriend and probably won’t notice anything.”

Luke frowned. “Her boyfriend won’t make trouble, will he?” he asked. “He’s not likely to throw his weight around?”

Steve shook his head. “He’s a minister. He may have a bit of a sharp tongue, but he’s not the jealous type.”

Luke shrugged. He couldn’t imagine a werewolf being the girlfriend of a minister, but he wasn’t going to argue. He needed a receptionist. And how much trouble could she cause? “When can she start?”

*******

Bron paused, panting at the gate. “That was a good run,” he said.

Gareth nodded. “I’m still getting used to it,” he said, fighting to catch his breath. He started stretching out as Bron hung around in the back of his mind. “But it’s good.”

Bron observed as Gareth went through the cooling down exercises. “There is so much knowledge now,” he said. “And we’re doing much better. Besides, it’s good that we exercise. Mortimer feeds us very well and we could end up fat.”

Gareth chuckled as he stretched his hamstring. “We’re putting on muscle, not weight,” he said. He kept the stretch going but his focus shifted. “That’s a new car in the drive.”

“Keep the warm down going,” Bron said. “And keep alert.”

Gareth nodded. “It’s a fancy car,” he said, changing legs. “It must have cost a fortune when it was new.”

“That was a while ago,” Bron said as he looked at its battered condition.

“The plates say that it’s a year old,” Gareth said.

“Then either the owner is a careless driver or it’s seen some action,” Bron said. “It’s even more battered than your car. That dent in the side looks like it was hit by a boggart.”

“Well spotted,” a voice said from behind them. “That’s exactly what happened. I’m Darren King and I was told that I could stay here. I’m an exorcist.”

Bron turned slowly before starting the quad stretch. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything. But you’re welcome of course.” He noted the hard muscles, cold eyes and assured balance of the man facing him. “There’s room for all of us.”

“You need to start checking your emails,” Darren said. “Not that would have made much difference. Lincoln aren’t good at sharing information and neither is York. I believe that there’s trouble around here. While the non-normals of Leeds are having fits, I’ve heard that the real action is around here.”

Gareth looked Darren over. He looked more like a movie star in a battered leather jacket, faded t-shirt and supermarket jeans than an exorcist. “Do you have any sort of identification?” he asked. “And just for the record – you’re not going to exorcise me.”

“That didn’t sound like a question,” Darren said, pulling a card holder from his jacket pocket and flipping it open. “I have a duty to my calling and to protect the world. If you have spirit inside you, I have to ask questions.”

“It’s okay,” Sir Philip came out from behind Darren and grinned. “I know Darren from way back. And he’s come here because he’s helping police the threat from the Orache Stone and he’s from out of town.”

“I shouldn’t be here for too long,” Darren said. “I’m being translated.” He sighed as he took in Gareth’s confused look. “I’m a minister. I have a parish. But with things going so crazy here, I’m getting moved from York to Leeds. Being translated means being moved on from a parish.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Bron muttered. “You’re still not exorcising me. And now that we’ve got that sorted out, what’s for dinner?” He strode past Darren and into the house. “Something smells good.”

*******

Gareth stuck his head into Carli’s office. “Are you ready to leave?” he asked.

“Just a second,” Carli said, grabbing up her bag. The rain rattled against the windows and she shivered. “Are you sure that you still want to go out?”

“I have been wanting a date for weeks,” Gareth said. “And so far we’ve been interrupted every time. Besides, I’m not taking you home to the madhouse.”

“Of course, you have a new guest,” Carli said. “What’s he like?”

“Bron respects him,” Gareth said. “Kidder and Mortimer are both terrified of him, though they’re starting to relax a bit. He brought his girlfriend around last week and I think she and Kidder sort of knew each other and that helped.”

“He must be terrifying if he’s got Bron’s respect,” Carli said. “How did he manage that?”

“Bron and Darren did a little sparring – which I stayed well out of!” Gareth said. He terrified the life out of me and kept up with Bron without much trouble.”

“That’s scary,” Carli said. She looked at the rain scything down in the car park. “We could get a takeaway and go to my place.”

Gareth felt temptation wash over him but fought it back. “No, I’m determined that for once we are going to go somewhere nice,” he said. “It’s about time I treated you to a meal.” He grinned down at Carli. “But we can still go to your place afterwards.”

She smiled back. “It’s a deal,” she said. “Come on.”

Talk turned to work matters as they walked down the stairs together. “The monochrome sounds like it could work,” Gareth said. “And I can think of a few places we could advertise, especially some of the more obscure websites.”

“You could just pass on the details to the sales team,” Carli said. “They’d appreciate the challenge. The trouble is that the monochrome isn’t straightforward from my side. It’s not just like adding black or white to a shade to get gradients. It’s more about getting subtle differences…” she trailed off as she heard Jed yell. “Oh no!”

Gareth raced ahead, flying around the last corner and landing ready to take on whatever had attacked Jed, stumbling to a halt at the unexpected scene. The new receptionist had Jed in an arm lock, twisting firmly against the joint. She was young, tall, slim, blonde and impossibly beautiful. She was also handling the bulk of Jed like an expert. “Try putting your hand on me again,” she said, twisting Jed’s wrist a little for emphasis. “And I’ll rip it off.”

Bron woke up, stretched and grinned. “I’m glad that someone’s teaching you how to behave,” he told Jed.

“Let me go!” Jed yelped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“My boyfriend will be picking me up soon, and you’ll see that he’s real if you stick around,” the blonde said. “But it doesn’t matter if he’s real or not. If I say don’t touch, you keep your hands to yourself – understand?”

“Yes! Yes! I’m sorry!” Jed cried, collapsing on the floor as the new receptionist released his hold.

“Hi Jasmine,” Carli said. “I’m sorry about Jed, but most of the guys here are okay. This is my boyfriend, Gareth. Gareth, this is the new receptionist, Jasmine Tait.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Gareth said, politely shaking Jasmine’s hand. He looked at Jed who was slowly picking himself up from the floor. “I’d ask if you were okay, but you seem to have it handled.”

“Are you sure that your boyfriend is picking you up?” Jed asked. Genuine admiration glowed in his eyes.

“Yes I am,” a voice said from the door.

“Hi Darren,” Gareth said, somehow unsurprised. “You didn’t tell me that Jasmine was working here.”

“You didn’t ask,” Darren said. His attention was all on Jasmine as he strode over to her.

“Carli, this is Darren, our new housemate,” Gareth said. “Darren, this is Carli, the genius designer here.” He watched the polite introductions and gave into the inevitable. “Why don’t we all go back to my place? Mortimer would love to make something substantial.”

Jasmine looked up at Darren, her face shining with love. “That would be wonderful. I’d love to see where you’ll be staying.”

Carli looked out of the window at the worsening weather. “And it’s definitely a night for staying in,” she said.

Gareth looked at Jed, standing forlorn and lonely. What the heck, he’d survived an attack by werewolves, seen the Orache Stone in action, at least from a distance, and was about to start selling to elfen. “If you keep your hands to yourself, you can come along,” Gareth said. “The food’s good and there’s plenty of it. The company…”

“Are they all as crazy as you?” Jed asked.

Gareth shrugged. “They’re possibly crazier,” he said.

Jed grinned. “I’m in,” he said. He watched as Jasmine scampered over to Darren’s battered Range Rover. “Does she have a sister?”

Chapter Twenty One

Gareth flew across the room and landed hard against the wall, wheezing as he slid down to the floor. He pushed himself to his feet and charged back to the fight. Beside him, Tyler snapped at a ghostly leg. He had gone to fur early on and was now snarling at the shapes forming around the central figure. Gareth body slammed into a disturbingly solid ghost before it could land on Tyler’s back then kicked out hard at the figure advancing on Darren. It barely staggered. Vaguely aware of Tyler’s growls and an unearthly shriek behind him, Gareth punched into the figure’s head and it reeled away, collapsing onto a display cabinet before fading away.

“Relinque hoc loco et numquam redire!” snapped Darren as he made the sign of the cross over the small statuette. “Relinque!”

There was a loud crack, a sharp smell of sulphur and then silence. Gareth looked around cautiously as he picked himself up and dusted himself down. Tyler got out of fur and reached for his trousers. “That was bad,” Tyler said.

Darren held up his hand and then prayed quietly for a few moments before turning around, relief on his sweat-streaked face. “That was tough,” he said. “You can come out now, Mrs Beasley.”

A thin faced woman crept into the shattered living room. “Thank you, vicar,” she said, looking around. “Is everything alright?”

Darren nodded. “There’s no trace of anything left in the statuette,” he said. “And if there was anything else affected in your collection, it would have shown. You can continue with your display.”

Mrs Beasley looked around her tiny collection and then back at the prize exhibit of a small Roman statue. “Actually, I think I may take up gardening,” she said. “How much do I owe you for this?”

Darren wearily shook his head. “Please, just remember me in your prayers, and if you have anything to give, please give it to a good charity.” He swayed slightly and Tyler quickly grabbed his shoulder.

“I’ll call in next week, if that’s convenient,” Gareth said. “I’ll just quickly check that things are staying quiet. And you have my phone number if anything else happens.” He looked with concern at Darren’s pale face. “We had better be going.”

He helped Tyler guide Darren out to the Range Rover and took the keys from Darren’s unresisting hand. “We need to get back,” Gareth said. “And Darren needs some decent food.”

“I’m fine,” Darren said, sagging into the passenger seat.

“I’ll get back to Lady Mary and give a report,” Tyler said. “She’s been dealing with her own problems up on the moors so she’ll be grateful that you’ve handled this.” He ran a weary hand over his face. “We can’t go on like this.”

Gareth glanced at Darren who looked ready to drop from exhaustion. “We should meet up later. We’re just reacting at the moment. We need to get ahead of things.”

Tyler nodded, exhausted. “But getting ahead of things means getting a breathing space to make plans.” He held up a hand. “I’ll talk later.”

*****

Jasmine sat next to Darren, a frown on her lovely face as she watched him devour a large vegetarian curry with a huge baked potato. “You can go on like this, love,” she said. “It’s relentless.”

Darren chewed around a mouthful before answering. “There aren’t many options,” he said. “It’s the damned Orache Stone. It’s stirring things up.” He shovelled in another mouthful of baked potato. “And it’s stirring up the bad stuff. I can’t turn my back.”

Gareth nodded wearily. “It’s bad,” he said. “I have bruises on my bruises, but we can’t let innocent people get hurt.”

“Was Bron there?” Kidder asked.

Gareth shook his head. “He thinks I need to get some practice on my own,” he said.

“The lad did pretty well,” Bron said. “Once he learns how to not get hit, he’ll be fine.”

“And you’re so good at that,” Gareth said with a tired grin as he took a forkful of the curry. “Don’t think I haven’t seen the evidence of your fights.”

“That’s different,” Bron said. “I have evidence of mighty battles. You wait until you catch up.”

“I’m not in a hurry,” Gareth said.

“And that’s just as well,” Bron retorted.

Darren managed to hide his own grin but looked around the room. For once, everyone was home. Mortimer was bringing in extra curry and a pile of naan bread. Kidder was sitting next to Gareth at the table, slowly eating his own portion and looking concerned. He’d been caught up in a few scraps and Darren was worried about the young werewolf getting in over his head. Sir Philip was sat at Darren’s right, keeping his own counsel. There were some nasty scratches on the handsome face and Sir Philip was sticking to using his left hand after an unpleasant dislocation damaged his right shoulder. Both Jasmine and Carli had come to visit, and while Carli had the sense to keep out of trouble, Darren’s heart twisted with worry at the thought of his young girlfriend getting caught up. She was a werewolf and could look after herself, but she was so dear to him. He couldn’t bear the thought of her getting hurt. He turned as there was a knock at the door. “Please, not another incident.”

“I’ll go,” Mortimer said, placing the platters on the table and hurrying out.

“I’ve been in touch with Lincoln,” Sir Philip said. “They haven’t much to give but they’re sending what they have.” He hesitated. “And they’re talking about sending in regulars.”

“The last thing we need is squaddies freaking out in the middle of a scrap,” Darren said wearily. “I don’t have the time to get them through it.”

“We didn’t get much help, did we?” Sir Philip said, looking Darren in the eye. “We didn’t have a choice. We managed.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Darren said. “I know a few who didn’t manage at all. We shouldn’t risk people breaking as part of a numbers game.”

“It’s Lady Mary and Tyler,” Mortimer said. With a sudden burst of courage, he turned to Lady Mary. “Please join us in the dining room. It’s imperative that Sir Philip and Darren have something to eat. And I can offer you something if you wish.”

Lady Mary managed a weary smile. “A small portion of whatever you are serving would be wonderful. It smells delicious.” She sank down wearily at the end of the table. “And if you have some tea, that would be lovely.”

Tyler caught Mortimer’s eye. “And I know what a good cook you are,” he said. “So pile my plate high.” He sat next to Lady Mary and for a brief moment she laid her head on his shoulder before sitting straight.

“It’s not often a Prince comes to a Paladin’s home,” Darren said. “But these are difficult times.”

Lady Mary nodded. “Spirits of all sorts have been creeping out of the strangest places,” she said. “The big museums know how to police their own, but the items that have been so inoffensive in small collections are suddenly becoming animated.”

Tyler grinned wolfishly as Mortimer put a large plate in front of him. “Thank you! Lord Marius wants to call a meeting to discuss the matter. He’s taking this pretty seriously.”

Lady Mary picked up a fork as a plate was placed in front of her and smiled her thanks at Mortimer, who blushed. “Just because the situation is desperate doesn’t mean that politics aren’t involved.” She took a small forkful and smiled in pleasure. “This is excellent, thank you.” She looked around the table. “The worst of the effects is being felt here. The Orache Stone is tethered to this area. Unfortunately, it’s spreading and Lord Marius desires to take action.”

“He’s taking action,” Sir Philip said. “He hasn’t got a choice. I had a quick call with Sir Dylan last night. Leeds, especially in the North West of the city, is feeling the effects.” He looked around the table. “And so is Lord Richard, towards the West. He’s had enough to deal with, though as the area is mostly sheep, he’s had a slightly quieter time.”

“The paladin there has a good grasp of magic,” Tyler said. “So it’s not so bad.”

“I was talking to Zahra yesterday,” Jasmine said. She glanced at Darren. “I know her from before I got to York and we’ve kept in touch. Bradford is getting hit as well, but it’s being kept down, at least for now.”

“They have their own systems in Bradford,” Darren said. “They may be willing to help us, but I don’t know if they’ll have the people.”

“How much is the Orache Stone and how much is Edragor?” Darren asked. “I’ve heard too much about that freak to be comfortable about all this.”

“I’ve not had all the information yet,” Lady Mary said, a brief flash of irritation crossing her face. “Edragor has some power, but not as much as he would like. But he’s a slimy toad. He’ll burn Mark out and leave him a husk, then hand the Orache Stone over to another stooge.” She frowned at the fragrant curry. “Edragor unfortunately has a lot of knowledge. The consequences could be problematic.”

“Lord Marius is having fits about it,” Darren said. “And he’s having trouble holding everyone together. They can’t find either the stone or Edragor and a lot of his court are talking about a Wild Hunt.”

“You can’t have a Wild Hunt in a city,” Sir Philip said. “It could be lethal.”

“What’s a Wild Hunt?” Carli asked timidly.

Darren ran a tired hand over his face. “The local prince summons every non-normal to ride with them in a chase around their domain,” he said. “Some princes summon them regularly and they don’t do too much damage in the country.”

“As long as they stay under the control of the prince,” Sir Philip said. “And stick to the wilder areas. The non-normals can get caught up in a kind of madness. Anyone not part of the Wild Hunt can get hunted – that is, literally hunted and torn to pieces. It can get ugly very fast.”

“But it’s not a bad way of flushing out enemies,” Lady Mary said. “I’ve taken part in a few in my time.” Her mouth twisted with distaste. “They are a blunt instrument. But if we can’t find the Orache Stone or Edragor, we’re out of options.” She exchanged a worried glance with Tyler. “The Wild Hunt should be here, as the Orache Stone is tethered to this location, but it could easily cross into Lord Marius’ domain, and then things could get tricky.”

“What about Mark?” Kidder asked quietly. “Can he be saved?”

There was a silence and then Bron reached over and put a sympathetic hand on the young werewolf’s shoulder. “Mark has gone,” Bron said. “At least, the bit that was Mark. It’s my guess it went a little while ago and he was just treading water as his wife died. The Orache Stone will have taken all that’s left. He may have already been replaced.”

“There has to be a better way of finding the Orache Stone,” Sir Philip said. “Wild Hunts are dangerous and unstable.”

Lady Mary nodded. “I agree,” she said. “But our contacts within the police have found nothing and any attempt at magical tracing has hit the wards. Even Steve Adderson can’t get past them.” She sighed and put her fork down on her plate. “Mark wouldn’t have realised, but Edragor did. Anything that could be used to trace Mark using magic has been removed from the pack buildings. Rhys is furious as there’s a lot of documents missing and it’s added legal complications to everything else.”

Gareth frowned. “You need a link to Mark or the Orache Stone?” he asked. “If you could find something like that, you could punch through the wards?”

“Steve Adderson could,” Lady Mary said. “It would be a struggle for anyone else, even with the links. But all trace of Mark has gone and what could we use for the Orache Stone? Everything connected with that has vanished.”

“Not exactly,” Gareth said. “Bron shared a grave with it for a few thousand years. Perhaps Steve could do something with that.”

“I’m not sure that I’m going to enjoy this,” Bron said.

Chapter Twenty Two

Dan paused at the entrance to the cold room. He hadn’t signed up for this. He’d been fascinated and desperate and perhaps this magic would give him the status that he had craved as a seventeen year old, scrawny, hopeless kid. He never thought that those vague pamphlets would lead him here, looking at a dead woman on a chilled slab with a husk of a man slumped next to her. The withered remains of a wedding bouquet lay on the bed between them. There was such a depth of sorrow here, he could hardly bear it. He jumped as his boss spoke.

“We need a replacement for Mark,” Edragor said. “There’s nothing left of him. He’ll be dead before the next full moon.” He looked thoughtful. “I can dispose of him easily enough, but I may try reanimating Claire. The enchantments I put in place have kept her in perfect condition.”

Dan kept his face blank but he noted the casual way Edragor claimed the enchantments. Dan had been the one to cast them, siphoning the energy from Mark under Edragor’s direction, using spells and enchantments that he had developed but that Edragor knew nothing about. “Won’t it be tricky with all the cancer?” he asked. His research and experiments had been clear – cancer was one place the magic couldn’t go.

Edragor’s mouth twisted. “You’re right,” he said. “We’ll have to dispose of both of them. It’s more important, however, that we find a new keeper of the Orache Stone. I can’t risk it calling to any of our brethren here.” He smiled thinly at Dan. “You are all far too valuable to me. Besides, it seems to call to werewolves.”

“Getting hold of a willing werewolf could be a problem,” Dan said. “Perhaps we could get hold of a stray?”

Edragor tapped his finger against his chin thoughtfully. “That has possibilities, as long as they’re not too degraded. A creature with enough bodily strength to hold the Orache Stone for some time but perhaps not too intelligent,” he said. “We could use someone with a grudge. They would be easy to manipulate.”

“I suppose so,” Dan said, his eyes drawn back to Mark, silent and still next to the remains of Claire.

“You mustn’t get too attached to them,” Edragor said. “I’ve already had to teach you that with the rats.”

“I suppose so,” Dan said. Some of the experiments with the rats had been… He pushed the thoughts back. He could simulate most of it on his computer these days. “But where are you going to find a stray?”

Edragor’s smile widened. “I think I may have a good candidate,” he said. “It’s a tactic not without risk, but I think worth taking a chance.”

“Are you sure that they’ll take the Orache Stone?” Dan asked.

“I don’t think many could resist it,” Edragor said. “That’s why access to here is so limited. I can’t risk too many people close to the thing.” He looked hungrily over to the stone in Mark’s hands. “The power is amazing…” His fingers clenched on the doorframe for a moment before he took a deep breath. “We are getting closer to controlling the dead. We should have a practice run on Halloween before the full attempt on the eve of the Winter Solstice.” His fingers tapped on the frame of the door. “I’ll arrange for some fresh bodies for Halloween.”

“We don’t have long,” Dan said quietly. “And I’m not sure about all of the wards.”

Edragor waved a dismissive hand. “The power we can channel will hold anything,” he said. “You concentrate on those wards and I’ll sort out the new Orache Stone holder and I’ll keep a watch on the morgues for good candidates.” He turned and strode away.

Dan shivered from more than the cold from the room. He didn’t want to do this but he had seen what Edragor had done to those who had tried to leave before. For a moment he leaned against the door, exhausted, before pushing himself away and dragging himself back to his computer. At least for now he could stick to the simulations.

*****

Lord Marius paced in his council chamber. As it reflected his mood, it currently looked like a Victorian gentleman’s club that had just been raided. Persian rugs were bundled in corners away from the gleaming parquet flooring and several of the rich leather chairs were upturned. A long scratch ran along the polished mahogany table and the picture of Queen Victoria was crooked over the cold fireplace. “This is insupportable!”

Phil lounged on one of the surviving armchairs. “We need to find Mark.”

“And none of the sorcerers are getting through,” Steve said as he stood near the fireplace. “Edragor was always tricky. Now he has the stone and it’s impossible.” He looked over to where Bron was sitting. “But I don’t think Bron would make a good tether.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Bron said.

Lord Marius shot a speculative glance at him. “We could conjure your spirit into a gem and use that as a tether.”

“No you couldn’t,” Bron said flatly.

“We could get you to try scrying,” Steve said.

“Nope, I’m not doing that either,” Bron said. “That last thing a paladin needs is to open themselves up to influences. It makes you easier to attack.”

“That is true,” Lord Marius said. He frowned. “How about other things that were buried with you? We could go back to your grave and look. That would have to be worth an attempt.”

“If anything’s survived,” Steve said doubtfully. “And if someone took the Orache Stone then they may have already taken whatever else survived.”

“That’s true,” Phil said. “I’ve heard a lot of people talking about finding stuff in fields and selling them online. And if it was one of the strays from Otley, they would have sold anything as quickly as possible.” He looked at Bron. “Can you remember what you were buried with?”

Bron stared at him. “I wasn’t there, at least, not in spirit,” he said. He nodded at Lord Marius. “His lordship might remember, though.”

“It was a few centuries ago,” Lord Marius said, frowning. “It’s hard to think that far back. It was a good funeral feast, Bron, and you would have been comforted by how many missed you.”

Bron shrugged. “It seems like only a few months ago to me,” he said with uncharacteristic softness. “I still miss them.”

“I know an archaeology student,” Phil said. “If you can show us the barrow, they can have a look through and perhaps find something.”

“I know where it is,” Gareth said. “But it’s too late to start out now.”

Phil shook his head. “It freaks me out every time,” he said.

“We’re going to have to go at night,” Steve said. “There are laws about digging up ancient burials.”

“I should hope so,” Bron said. “There’s an evil in grave robbing.”

“I can make some sort of glamour so no-one spots us,” Steve said. “But we had better go when it’s quiet.”

“I’m not sure that the archaeology student will understand,” Phil said. “I’ll have to have a word.”

“Let me speak to them,” Lord Marius said. “I have a way with words.”

“You can’t just threaten them,” Bron said.

“No such thing,” Lord Marius said. “But I can promise them a place on some very promising excavations. I have a few contacts.”

Bron looked at him suspiciously but nodded. “And while you are not threatening someone or making them risk their future, I’ll have a word with Fang’s old friends at the Iron Sickle,” he said. “There may be some offerings that they haven’t sold yet which we could use.” He frowned. “Does the effect wear off if they’re kept jumbled up with stuff?”

“Normally yes,” Steve said. “But this is the Orache Stone. Its effects are not going to fade easily.”

“Good,” Lord Marius said. “Phil, you may take me to this student now.” He frowned. “We can’t delay until Halloween. We can’t risk the potential influences.”

“The sooner we start, the sooner we finish,” Bron said, standing. “I’ll get back to the Iron Sickle now.”

“And I’ll get back to my work,” Steve said. “We can’t risk mistakes and we’ve no time to lose.”

Chapter Twenty Three

Gareth grunted with effort as he lifted his corner of the machine piece. “Here?” he asked as he looked at the new weaver. He still wasn’t used to being used as muscle. All the training had bulked him out, though, and he was now called to help move heavy things.

Dawn frowned and looked between the end of the loom and the window. “I’m not sure,” she said.

Gareth stared at the brownie in frustration. “Most of the year you’ll be working in the dark,” he said. “You’ll be doing the night shift. The window doesn’t matter. You’ll be using lights.”

Dawn considered that morsel of information and then looked up. “The lights are wrong,” she said.

“Of course the bloody lights are wrong,” Vince said. The goblin glared as he stalked across the floor. “Just put the damned loom somewhere and we can sort out the lights around it. You brownies are all the same.”

“If you mean we want things done right, then yes!” Dawn said. She looked over to the door. “I don’t want a draught.”

Gareth leant against the loom and caught Kidder’s eye. The young werewolf was trying not to laugh. “I’ll just take five minutes,” Gareth said.

“No!” Dawn said. “We’re going to get it right now. Do you know how long it can take to dress a loom? We can’t be wasting time.”

“You are wasting time, you daft biddy,” Vince said. “This should have been set up hours ago but you keep messing us around. Get that broomstick out of your fat backside and get on with it.”

Jed, also recruited to help lift the loom leant close to Gareth. “How many humans are there here?” he asked.

“It’s not ‘human’, it’s ‘non-normal’ and it’s just you and me,” Gareth said. “Technically we’re normals.” He thought for a moment. “For a given definition of normal.”

Jed shook his head. “Because it sounds like my mum and dad arguing when they move furniture.”

“It’s the air that worries me,” Dawn said. “I don’t want dust collecting and making a fire risk.”

Vince snorted. “All the weavers and crew are brownies,” he said. “There’s more chance of me getting lucky with…”

Dawn held up an imperious hand. “Don’t you dare finish that sentence, young man,” she said. “There’s a lady present.”

Vince looked her slowly up and down. “No,” was all he said but Dawn flushed red with anger.

Gareth stepped quickly between them. “Please, we need to get this sorted out now,” he said. “I’ve got duties out there, and I know that the sooner we have the old looms in place, the sooner we can start.” He looked between the two adversaries. “You know how bad it’s been.”

“He’s been working around the clock,” Kidder added. “It’s been scary.”

Dawn glared at Vince and then sniffed. She looked around again and nodded. “I need the main housing here,” she said, pulling some chalk out of her pocket and marking the stone floor. “But the lights will need to be moved.”

Vince looked thoughtfully at Gareth. “Was it you or Bron that helped out my brother-in-law at the garage?” he asked. “Because that was bad. You were with Sir Philip, weren’t you?”

“It was Bron,” Gareth said. “But he told me about it. Sir Philip has been a real help.”

Vince pursed his lips and then nodded. “I can get the lights sorted out, no problem,” he said. He looked over at Dawn. “Once the machine is in position, mark where you need extra lighting. And I’ll bring over some lamps to keep you going while you get it all threaded up.”

“Thank you,” Dawn said. “Getting the loom dressed is going to be something of a challenge. The pattern is…” she hunted for a tactful description. “The pattern is very lively. I don’t know why they didn’t stick to a traditional cream or a nice soft green.”

“I like a bit of colour,” Vince said, rubbing a hand down his greasy overalls. “A bright pink would be nice.” He looked around the astonished expressions. “What? I like pink. But a blanket has to be plain or the pattern keeps you awake.”

“Well, we’re not being paid to use them,” Dawn said. “And that’s just as well. Anyway, I’ve got some snacks in the meeting room. When you’ve moved the loom, come down and I’ll make some tea.”

Vince rubbed his hands together as Dawn stalked out. “At least we get a good feed out of that,” he said gleefully. “Now let’s get this machine in place.” He patted the cast iron affectionately. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”

“And there’s a reason for that,” Gareth said as he took his corner.

Jed grunted with effort as they shifted the pieces of the loom into place. “How old is this loom? It looks older than me.”

“And the rest,” Vince said as he deftly connected the pulleys. “This is probably about a hundred years old, or maybe a little more.” He slotted a shaft in place and pulled out a spanner to tighten the nut. “The target audience is elfen, though, and they’re not good with modern stuff. Most of them can’t deal with cars, never mind computers or smart phones.” He checked the sit of the bolt and moved on. “Can you move that a smidgeon to the right, your other right, that’s it.” He fitted another bolt. “From what I’ve heard, you have the deal because it’s older stuff. It’s 100% woollen blankets, made on old looms, dyed in stupid patterns and brownie made.”

“It’s not that our day crew can’t handle it,” Gareth said. “But it sealed the deal.” Luke had been grumbling about it all week. “And with it being strictly at night, it makes the best use of the space.”

Jed grinned. “It doesn’t put too much load on the electrics,” he said. “I heard Luke swearing about how much rewiring would cost and how with the extra machines, because of the extra demand, he can’t get out of it.”

“So running this at night spreads the electrical load,” Gareth said. He checked the machine. “Is that it?”

Vince nodded. “It’s in place now. Me and my boys will get it running by the end of the week,” he said. “Now, let’s get down to those snacks.”

Jed looked at Gareth as they straightened and dusted down their clothes. “Are the snacks that good?” he asked.

Kidder grabbed Jed’s arm. “They’re better than good. You like Mortimer’s cooking, don’t you?” he said.

Jed nodded. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Food fit for the gods. It’s why I keep bringing the beer around and scrounging dinner.”

“Mortimer is only a beginner compared to Dawn,” Kidder said. “Don’t keep her waiting!”

*****

Kidder forced himself to open his heavy eyes. What had happened? He rolled over and pushed himself to his knees, shivering. He was in a cage in the centre of what felt like a cellar. Cold radiated from the stone floor and into his bones. He staggered to his feet and groaned. His clothes were missing and the cool, damp air sucked the heat from him. He grabbed hold of the bars and forced himself to stay upright. He had been late leaving the mill as he had stayed behind to help Dawn move in the threads she needed. She had given him a large paper bag full of snacks and told him to be careful and go straight home. Kidder felt himself sway and leant against the bars. He had been cutting across a park when everything had gone fuzzy.

As Kidder’s wits returned, he looked around as much of the cage as he could see in the dim light. There was a narrow cot on one side, a lidded bucket in a corner and a silicon dog bowl of water was placed next to a silicon dog bowl of kibble. After all the snacks he had devoured earlier, Kidder wasn’t hungry but his mouth felt dry and dusty. Without thinking, Kidder went to fur and trotted over to lap thirstily at the water, glad of his wolf shape as it kept out the cold. The water was cool and refreshing and he drank eagerly.

“Hello, Kidder,” a voice said behind him. “Don’t worry about changing.”

Kidder turned around and padded towards the voice. A door had opened in the corner and light spilled in, showing a dusty room with boxes stacked in corners. The tall, cadaverous figure facing him was unnerving.

“My name is Edragor,” the figure said. “You need to eat and drink and build up your strength.”

Kidder tried to shift back from fur but he couldn’t shake his wolf shape.

“I’m sorry to be deceptive,” Edragor said. “But I put a little something in your water. For now, you’ll stay in wolf form.” He smiled thinly. “You have a little less impulse control and logic in that shape. Don’t worry too much. It’s just a way of making sure that we become friends.”

Kidder felt his lips lifting in a snarl as he backed away from the figure.

“You won’t be able to stay away from the water,” Edragor said. “I did mention about the lack of impulse control, didn’t I? But I’ll look after you. Don’t you worry about a thing

Chapter Twenty Four

Sir Philip limped back into the house. “That was a bit of a challenge,” he said as Mortimer opened the door to him. “I don’t suppose there’s a chance of a cup of tea.”

Mortimer stared for a moment at Sir Philip. “What happened?” he asked as he looked over Sir Philip who was covered with leaves, mud and what looked like traces of blood. He shook his head. “Never mind that, sir, but come in and I will start a bath before making tea.” Mortimer shut and locked the door once they were inside.

“There was some sort of rogue spirit in the trees,” Sir Philip said. “I wish I had the knack of a priest or a paladin, but I managed to drive it back. The playground should be safe for at least a week or two.” He sighed and leaned against the kitchen doorframe. “I’ll just get a quick shower and I’ll be straight down.” He managed his charming smile. “I’d be grateful if you could make me something to eat – anything hot would do, or even a sandwich.”

Mortimer frowned. “A bath would be better for you sir,” he grumbled. “But I’ll make sure that you have something good waiting for you when you come down.”

“Thank you,” Sir Philip said. “I won’t be long.”

Mortimer rushed into the kitchen, shaking his head. The Knight Templar looked almost ready to break. At least he could do better than a sandwich. He looked up as he heard the front door.

“It’s okay, it’s me,” Gareth called out.

Mortimer heard the door lock and smiled as Gareth came in. The smile faded as he took in the scratches down Gareth’s face. “Sir! What happened?”

“It was just one Gabble Ratchett but it got stuck under a car,” Gareth said wearily. “It was far more effort than it deserved.”

Mortimer looked confused. “What’s a Gabble Ratchett?”

“They’re nasty packets of malevolent energy,” Gareth said, easing himself out of his jacket. “If they’re summoned by someone then they usually turn up in a pack, but this just manifested as a single creature. I suppose it’s just one of the side effects of Edragor throwing all this dark magic around. They’re not strong but they can be nasty and I couldn’t leave it. Didn’t Kidder tell you? I sent him ahead.”

“Kidder isn’t home,” Mortimer said. “But Sir Philip is here. He had a problem with some trees.”

Gareth ran a weary hand over his face. “Kidder said something about calling in to see Jasmine and Darren, but I thought that was tomorrow.”

Sir Philip appeared in the doorway. “What’s happening?”

“I was just wondering if Kidder was home,” Gareth said.

“You look like you’ve been in a fight,” Bron added. “You need to sit down before you fall down.” He looked at Mortimer. “We can sit in the kitchen until food’s ready, can’t we?”

“I insist, sir!” Mortimer said. “I’ve already got a pan of soup on the stove – home made and not some of this shop bought rubbish! It’s ready to serve if you’ll just sit. And while you get that inside you, I’ll get something together for a main course.”

Sir Philip sank gratefully down into a kitchen chair and Gareth joined him after a quick wash of his hands and face. Cleaning off the dirt had brought the scratches and scrapes into clearer relief on both of them. “We can’t keep going on like this,” Sir Philip said. “I’m exhausted.”

“I’m going to book time off work,” Gareth said. “Luke won’t like it, but I’ve earned it and there’s enough set up at work to keep going for a while.”

Bron watched Mortimer set a steaming bowl of soup in front of them and a heaped plate of rolls in the centre of the table. “Thank you,” he said. “That looks just what need.”

“Are you joining us?” Sir Philip asked.

Mortimer shook his head. “I’m not that hungry. I’ll share the main course,” he said.

Sir Philip bent his head and said Grace before taking a spoonful of the soup. “This is good,” he said.

“It is indeed!” Bron said with enthusiasm. “You’re a great cook.”

Mortimer glowed with happiness as he laid some cold cooked potatoes into the frying pan. “I’m happy to be of use,” he said. He cast a worried glance over his shoulder as he took in the weariness of the men behind him. “I wish I could do more.” He laid strips of bacon onto the hot griddle and smiled at their sizzle. “I’ve just got some cake for dessert,” he said. “But I could make some custard to go with it.”

Sir Philip broke one of the fresh rolls and took a hearty bite. “Normally I’d say that we wouldn’t need it,” he said. “But I think we’re using up the calories.”

Gareth swallowed the last spoonful of warmed ginger cake with custard and sighed. “That was just what we needed,” he said.

“It absolutely was,” Sir Philip agreed, leaning back in the kitchen chair. He sagged wearily but then straightened a little as he heard the front door unlock.

“It’s just me,” Darren called out as he walked into the kitchen and sank down into a spare chair. “I’ve been sorting out a shade just outside Ilkley.” He looked over at Mortimer. “Any food left.”

“Of course,” Mortimer said, offended at the lack of faith.

“Where’s Kidder?” Bron asked. “I thought he was meeting you?”

“I haven’t seen him,” Darren said. “We’re supposed to be meeting up tomorrow for werewolf stuff with him and Jasmine, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to make time.”

“Kidder was supposed to come home ahead of me while I dealt with a Gabble Ratchet,” Gareth said as a chill settled in his stomach.

Sir Philip frowned and pulled out his mobile phone. “He’s really not much more than a pup,” he said. “But he could overestimate his ability.”

“He can stand up for himself if he has to,” Bron said. “But you’re right, he’s not a full wolf yet.”

“The phone’s going to voicemail,” Sir Philip said. “It’s switched off.”

“I’ll get on the laptop,” Gareth said. “It’s easier to track the phone from there.”

“I’ll ring Tyler,” Darren said, ignoring the bowl of soup in front of him. “With all this dark stuff going on, he could have been taken.”

Sir Philip pushed himself to his feet. “Once you’ve checked the laptop, we can retrace his likely route,” he said. He looked at Mortimer. “You need to hold the fort here. Take phone messages, keep the place warm and ready. I’ll call Rhys and see if he can spare anyone.”

“You know that they’re stretched looking for Mark,” Gareth said as he strode into the study to fire up the new laptop. “But I think that he won’t begrudge help.”

Darren followed them, phone in hand. “And I get Jasmine,” he said.

Bron looked up from the laptop. “There’s no trace of the phone after he crossed the park,” he said and then hesitated. “I’m remembering the old days. The Orache Stone wears out its owner quickly. Mark would be at the end of his usefulness by now.” He took a deep breath. “If Edragor is using a werewolf as a proxy to use the Orache Stone without getting damaged himself then he may be looking for another werewolf.” There was a long silence before Bron continued. “Kidder would be a good target on the outside. He’s young, impressionable and he’s a stray without a pack to come looking for him.”

Mortimer clutched at Bron’s arm. “But sir, we’re his pack,” he said.

“Damn right,” Bron said. “I could be wrong, but let’s get moving, and the quicker the better. If I’m right and Kidder gets caught up in the Orache Stone then he’s finished.”

*******

The cold didn’t affect Kidder so much but the dark was wearing him down. He lapped thirstily at the water dish and then took a few mouthfuls of kibble. There wasn’t much he could do in fur while he was kept in this cage. He jumped easily onto the bed and circled a few times before laying down with his head on his paws, pointedly away from the Orache Stone on the stand in the corner.

He could feel it calling to him. The insidious tug of desire. He could hear it whispering to him. Kidder tried to push his paws over his ears, but it didn’t help. Images of power seeped into his mind. He was a pack leader, gathering strays and sheltering them. He was surrounded by dozens of strong, young fighters with gleaming fur and sharp jaws. Someone soft and feminine was at his side, nuzzling up to him as the huge pack gathered for the feast, well fed and housed in warm, safe dens. He could do so much. He wouldn’t be chasing a dead woman like Mark. He could take this inexhaustible power and use it for all the right reasons. He could save so many.

Kidder whimpered and clutched his paws tighter over his head.

Chapter Twenty Five

“I need to get all the permissions from you,” Steve said. “I can do a magical trace on him and, with all the stuff you’ve given me, I’ve got a decent chance of finding him.” He glanced at the men surrounding him in the living room in Gareth’s cottage. “But I won’t do it if there’s any doubt from you.”

“Why should there be doubt?” Gareth asked. “Kidder is missing. Everything is going crazy and the dark creatures are starting to creep out. He could be hurt or worse. What if Edragor has taken him to replace Mark?”

“Because we’ve no guarantees that Kidder wants to be found,” Bron answered softly. “And how many of us here will be giving Steve access to Kidder’s very soul without being able to check what he’s doing? No offence,” he added, turning to Steve. “But none of us here are really up on magic.”

“None taken,” Steve said. “You can’t check what I’m doing and that’s why I need you all to agree to this. Though, at the risk of sounding like I’m hustling, we don’t have much time. There’s been an outbreak of rogue ghouls at St James Hospital which Lord Marius and Phil the boggart are still sorting out while Darren has practically forgotten what sleep is. I’ve been working with the ifrits on the edge of Bradford as well as the princes of Wakefield and Hebden Bridge. We’re all struggling while Edragor controls the Orache Stone.” He looked away from the others. “And there’s a good chance that Kidder hasbeen taken by Edragor. It makes sense. So apart from wanting to rescue a half grown werewolf cub that doesn’t deserve half of what’s hit him, it may be the key to finally stopping this.”

“And you’re asking us,” Gareth said. “What about Kidder’s family – his pack?”

“That’s who we are,” Bron said softly. “We’re his family at the cottage with Mortimer and whoever else stays, like Darren and Sir Philip. Tyler is the chief of the werewolves in Otley and he’s been looking out for Kidder, and he also has the final say on the welfare of werewolves in that domain. Rhys is the chief of the Leeds werewolves and for a while he worked with Kidder. We’re his family and that’s that.”

Steve stared briefly at Gareth and Bron speaking from the same mouth, then dismissed it. “I need to start soon if it’s going to happen,” he said. “Things are coming to a crisis.”

Tyler looked at Steve thoughtfully. “I know your reputation,” he said. “But I don’t know you. None of us here do. And you’ve brought Ian Tait along to vouch for you. That makes things complicated.”

Rhys shook his head. “You should be glad to see him,” he told Tyler, his face hard. “Ian got things wrong, was a stray, took in strays, made things right and he’s a werewolf that can do magic. You should spend time with him.”

“I was never a stray like that,” Tyler snapped. He stopped and held up his hands. “No offence, Ian, but we need to be careful.”

“None taken,” Ian said. “You look after your own. That’s what a pack means. Kidder isn’t really in a proper pack, that’s why you’re asking questions. But we can’t sit around going over and over the same concerns. Halloween is approaching. We should do any ritual then.”

There was a long, tense silence. “Are you sure?” Bron asked. “That’s Samhain, the Day of the Dead, the turn of the year. That’s a tricky time to do a ceremony.”

Steve grimaced. “It’s not ideal, but it could mean that we get the power to break through the defences. Edragor is good, really good at this sort of thing. I’ve been unpicking layer after layer of misdirection looking for the Orache Stone and I’ve pushed through a few wards with just brute force, but I haven’t got enough to work with to really break through all the barriers. The scraps that we found at Bron’s grave site weren’t any help. Using Kidder’s clothing and the hair on his comb would give me a real advantage.”

“Edragor is delusional,” Ian said. “I mean, he doesn’t think that the world is flat or that Atlantis used to be at Milton Keynes, but he has some strange ideas about the old festivals.” He looked around the quiet group. “He thinks that he can control the power running through the old channels. You can maybe guide a little of it if you prepare well and keep focused, but you can’t take on the whole thing. Edragor is going to try and use the Orache Stone to channel more power than makes sense. He’s going to be too busy on Halloween to keep his wards up. It’s going to be our best chance.”

“That’s three days away,” Bron said. “Three more days for Kidder to wait for rescue. But is it enough time to prepare?”

Steve nodded. “I’ve been trying a few different things,” he said. “And I’ve eliminated a lot of angles. Ian and I can get something together and I have all the supplies.”

“I’ll need to speak to Lady Mary,” Tyler said. “Princes are always against this sort of thing at a festival.” He frowned. “But you’re making sense. She’ll almost certainly agree.”

“I’ll have to speak to Lord Marius,” Rhys said. “Although I guess that he’s already given you permission.”

Steve nodded. “You’ve got my number. Let me know by midday tomorrow if there are any problems. Otherwise we’ll go ahead with the ritual.”

“I know this is a bad night to ask,” Ian said. “But we’ll need you all there. We’ll need to have people to watch our backs. The ritual can’t be interrupted. And Steve and I may not be in any state to go after Kidder and Edragor. To be honest, we’ll probably be wrecks. We’ll need to have someone else take part in any rescue.”

“And if Edragor hasn’t got Kidder?” Bron asked

“We should be able to manage a second ritual before dawn,” Ian said. He glanced over at Steve. “For Kidder’s sake, I hope that he’s just out of it somewhere, though no-one can give a good explanation about why he’s missing. I wish my instincts weren’t telling me that we’ll only need one ritual.”

****

Dan carefully straightened the mouse mat to align perfectly with the edge of the desk and the laptop. “If the next subject doesn’t agree to take the Orache Stone then we will have problems,” he said. “The current subject is failing.”

“He’s dying,” Edragor said. “He’ll probably last until Halloween.” He frowned. “I can’t take the risk of the Orache Stone being without an owner. I can hear it calling as it is.” He whirled around suddenly and pointed a bony finger at Dan. “And you are far too knowledgeable for me to risk with that stone. If the new subject doesn’t take the stone willingly then I’ll force it. Once the power is running through the mutt then we should have no problem directing things in the way we want.” He whirled around. “Follow me,” he snapped.

Dan stood slowly and trudged after him. He had to get out of here. He couldn’t carry on. How long would it be before Edragor turned on him? And the experiments were beyond anything he had ever imagined. It had been bad enough with the rats, so bad that he had created computer algorithms to simulate the experiments. But watching Mark dwindle and Kidder confined and coerced was stripping Dan of his soul. He wanted to learn magic, he wanted to get power but not like this. He didn’t want to be Edragor. “Are you sure that you can make the subject take the stone?” he asked.

Edragor waved a dismissive hand. “If we force it into his hands then he’ll have no choice,” he said. He strode confidently into the confinement room. It took Dan all of his courage to follow him. On a cot to one side was Claire, her remains perfectly preserved and highlighted by a glow of magic. In the centre of the room was Mark who was hooked up to a bank of tubes and wires as the husk of a strong and vibrant man slid towards death. Dan had loathed him when they first met and had thought Mark’s obsession with Claire dangerously unbalanced. He still wouldn’t have wished this living death on the werewolf.

“How is he still alive?” Dan asked.

“With a help of a little magic and a lot of science,” Edragor said, ignoring Mark and striding over to Claire. “But it’s magic alone that keeps Claire perfectly preserved. I wonder if she is the best candidate for our first trial. The cancer severely weakened her and I think I need something a little more robust.” He glanced over at Mark. “Of course, I’ll have to keep her here until Mark dies. I don’t quite trust him, even in this condition.” Edragor frowned. “Perhaps I could find someone experimenting with drugs and arrange an overdose.”

Dan felt sick. “Murder could bring unwanted attention,” he said carefully.

“I suppose a little grave robbing can’t be helped,” Edragor said. He tapped a finger on his chin thoughtfully. “It will be easier if I can make the first attempt at reanimation early in the Orache Stone’s possession of the new subject, when he still has all his vital energy. On the other hand, finding a good subject for reanimation requires thought. No matter. Let’s see if our test subject has succumbed to temptation.”

Edragor walked briskly down the hall and unlocked a door. “Perhaps I should let him transform back to human shape,” he said. “What is it they call it? Coming out of fur?” He opened the door and switched on the light before striding down the concrete steps. “He may be susceptible to alcohol in a different shape.”

“It’s very hard to get werewolves drunk,” Dan reminded him. “It doesn’t seem to matter what shape they are. Remember, we’ve seen werewolves who are in their wolf shape happily drinking beer out of dog bowls.”

“I daren’t risk drugs,” Edragor said. “Although perhaps some valerian.” He paused in thought at the door at the foot of the stairs and then dismissed the idea. “Let’s see if our subject has succumbed to temptation. I haven’t felt a shift in the magical currents, but I may yet be surprised.” He opened the door into the cellar.

Kidder was still locked in wolf form, huge and muscled with gleaming fur. Here and there was a hint of youth but it was still an overlarge, adult, male wolf sitting on the floor of the cage. He was up on his haunches, his eyes gleaming like gold as he stared at the Orache Stone on its stand. He didn’t stand as Edragor approached the cage. Instead he tracked Edragor and Dan with his eyes as the men approached.

“You can hear it calling,” Edragor said. “You can hear it whispering to you. Should I pass it to you in the cage?”

The great wolf barely glanced at Edragor but kept his focus on the stone.

“There is no escaping this fate,” Edragor said. “You will take the Orache Stone, one way or another.”

The wolf remained impassive.

Edragor gestured to Dan who scampered to bring clothes over to Kidder. “After tonight you’ll find yourself able to switch back to human,” he said. “Perhaps when your more rational mind is in control we can come to a civilised arrangement.” He whirled around and stalked off.

Dan stared deep into Kidder’s luminous eyes. They were as rational as anything Dan had ever seen. For a moment he was caught in their amber glow, transfixed by the concentration and intent behind them. Then he dumped the clothes next to the cage bars and fled.

Chapter Twenty Six

“It could be worse,” Carli said, patting her uncle’s arm.

Luke stared at her and then looked back to the smoke filled building. “I suppose so,” he said.

“No-one got hurt,” Carli said. “The fire alarm worked, everyone shut down and got out and it was all quickly contained.” She glanced across to Gareth who was sweating and smoke stained.

Gareth coughed as he came over. “Everyone got out fine,” he said. “And it’s only the stuff in the stores that got burned.”

“This could ruin us,” Luke said quietly.

“No!” Carli cried. “It’s just a little fire. The building is still here.”

Luke shook his head. “We’re going to have to get rid of almost all the stock,” he said. “We’ll have to dump it all. The stuff that isn’t burned or soaked from the sprinklers and fire fighters will stink of smoke. We’re talking a loss of thousands. The stores will have to be completely refitted.” He sighed. “And if it’s to go again then the whole place will need to be rewired.”

“At least it was only the stock areas that got soaked,” Gareth said. “That and the knitwear looms. And what about insurance? You must have that.”

“That’s something,” Luke said. “It’ll cover the lost stock. But I only got the basics. It won’t cover lost time and it won’t cover the rewiring.”

Gareth slowly walked over to Carli and hugged her. She sagged a little and leaned against him. “It’s okay,” he said. He took a deep breath and looked around. “This is salvageable. We just need to be methodical about it.” He looked around and started giving orders. “Jed, Syed, Jasmine, I want you to start getting all the electronics out of there. It’s going to be damp and smoky so the quicker that they’re out of there, the better for them. Label each computer, printer, scanner, whatever, tape the wires to the item and get them over to the old drying shed. Keith!” Gareth looked around for the boggart normally found in on the weaving floor. “Keith, find some trollies for the office stuff, then we’ll need your help checking over the machines. Most of the sewing room should be fine but we need to check.”

“Gotcha,” Keith said before loping off towards the sheds, closely followed by Jasmine, Syed and Jed.

Gareth looked down at Carli. “Go to the warehouse, pick up a load of boxes and start packing up your office. Take photos as you go for the insurance, just in case,” he said. “Pat from the canteen should be able to help you.” He gave her shoulders a quick squeeze and then gave her a little push towards Pat. “Load up your car and mine and you can start working from the cottage,” he added. “The work isn’t going to stop.” Gareth moved Luke a little away from the rest of the workers who were milling around. “The electrics are toast,” he said. “All the wiring is fried. We’ve got a few working electric outlets in the old sheds and that’s it. We’ll need to check and see what’s survived. The computers had surge protectors, but I’m not sure about the new looms. Their computer parts are probably fried as well.” He watched Luke go pale. “It’s okay. That will be covered by the insurance and we can take the opportunity to upgrade,” Gareth said. “And we still have the old looms that we were using for the blankets for the special orders. They can run on generators and I know for a fact that you’ve got a couple of those stashed away in the sheds.”

Luke nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “And we’ll get the night shift working if nothing else,” he said.

“We need to get a price for washing, drying and folding all the smoke damaged stock,” Gareth said. “If we sell it off at a bit over cost, we’ll at least keep the cash flow.”

“You’ve been paying attention in those classes,” Luke said. Colour was returning to his face as he started to pace. “The dyes were in the storerooms along with most of the yarn.”

“It won’t take long to order replacement stock in,” Gareth said. “Besides, we need to be methodical.” He looked around. “Get in touch with the insurers. You need to know what we can do and when. If we take pictures as we go, we can get the building empty.” Gareth waved a hand. “There’s plenty of people here right now who need to keep busy until they’ve had a chance for the adrenalin to wear off. We need to get as much cleared out, dried off and into the sheds as we can.” Gareth took Luke’s arm and lowered his voice. “The night shift, those workers on that particular loom? They’re brownies. If you want the best cleaning job you’ve ever had, they’ll get you the best contacts and the best price. It won’t be cheap, but it will be worth every penny. Trust me.”

Luke looked at Gareth for a long time. “Since you came with your new ideas, business has soared,” he said. “And with Carli’s designs, the money is rolling in. On the other hand we’ve got werewolves, brownies, goblins, boggarts and the fair folk all over the place and some strange stuff happening.” He shook his head. “I know that the electrical short was overdue, and it could have been a lot worse, and that the deal with these other types could save our bacon, but it’s not canny.” Luke shuddered. “And still no sign of Kidder?”

Gareth shook his head. “We’ve got people out looking but there’s been no sign,” he said. “The main hope that we have now is a magic ritual, believe it or not.”

Luke stared at him. “I’ve heard everything now,” he said. He looked at the people milling around. “I suppose I do believe it because with everything else…” He pursed his lips and nodded to himself. “You get everyone moving. You’ve got a way with you. We’ll need the room with the old looms sorted, the other old looms brought out of storage and put roughly in the right places. Vince can sort out the generators and Carli can sort out some extra patterns for the blankets. They’ll keep the lights on for a week or two.” He nodded. “We can do a fire sale on the internet and keep people busy there.”

“Your office and the archives need to be packed up,” Gareth said. “You should supervise that, with all the confidential stuff.”

“We need to get everything out,” Luke said. His gaze roamed over the old mill building. “Like I said, you and Carli have changed everything…” He turned suddenly to Gareth. “Are you two getting on okay?”

Gareth was thrown by the change of subject. “Yes, we’re fine,” he said. “I mean, we’re doing okay.”

“And you’re looking after her?” Luke said. “After she got stalked by that werewolf, well, we were all worried. It’s better that she’s safe up here.”

“I’ll always look after,” Gareth said. He looked over towards Carli as she and Pam discussed their plans and his heart warmed a little. “I’ll always be there for her.” He shook his head. “But what were you saying about getting everything out?”

“That mill hasn’t had a proper clear out since 1902,” Luke said. “There may not be attics, but there are cellars that have been locked up since I was a lad and there are all sorts of junk stuffed into the corners. It’s like the dyes, remember, those months ago? Everything has been just stacked and dumped and shoved to one side. We’re going to empty the mill, give it a good fettling and get everything set out. Besides, I don’t want to wait until there’s another accident.”

Gareth stared at Luke and turned back to the mill. “That’s big job,” he said quietly. The mill was massive and less than a quarter was in use.

Luke nodded. “But it’s overdue, lad, and now’s the chance.” He nodded to the rest of the staff. “Keep them busy today and they can have tomorrow off. You, Carli and me are going to sit down at my house tomorrow and work out what happens next. I’ll call Syed in as well, and Keith.” He nodded to himself. “I’m getting too old for this game, but you and Carli can make the difference. It’s not winding down anymore.”

It was Bron that replied. “It sounds like you have a lot of plans in mind,” he said. “Plans which could use an assistant manager.”

Luke frowned. “Yes, an assistant manager would be very welcome but it’s not going to be you, lad, not with your second job,” he said. “Just get everyone moving and send some boxes up to my office.”

“I’ll get on it,” Bron said.

“Hang on a minute,” Luke said. “This magical ritual thing – will you need space for it?”

Bron nodded. “I’m no expert,” he said. “But there’ll be a lot of people standing around and doing what they do. Why?”

“Kidder’s one of ours,” Luke said. He nodded at the mill. “And there is a lot of empty floor space in there, in an empty building, and it will all be nice and clean. Don’t make too much mess, just get Kidder back to us. I’ll make sure that you have the keys and the alarm codes.”

Bron swallowed a lump in his throat. “Thank you, sir, it’s a help.”

Luke grunted. “Glad to hear it. Now let’s get moving.”

*****

Dan jumped as Edragor shut the door to his office. “I didn’t hear you come in, my lord,” he said.

“I know,” Edragor said smoothly. “You were deep in thought.”

“I’ve been researching a suitable subject for your… experiments,” Dan said. “But I’m struggling a little. Any subject will have some damage. I’m not sure how to prioritise.” He looked briefly up at Edragor. “If we could consider the sort of damage that would be unimportant to a resurrected subject then I could refine my search.” Dan felt his gut heave at the thought of it.

“That’s a valid point,” Edragor said. “For the Halloween project, I think we should use Claire. That will give us a baseline. Mark is unlikely to last the night, so we don’t need to worry about him.”

Dan tried to stifle his sigh of relief. “And you asked me to look for a suitable place to perform the rituals,” he said.

“Yes, of course,” Edragor said, pacing around Dan’s small, paper-strewn office. “The space here is a little limited, especially as there will be two rituals with different requirements to run in sequence. Besides, I know that they will be on the watch for magical influences so I don’t want to lead any hostile onlooker to our home. Have you found somewhere useful?”

Dan grinned. “I’ve found the perfect place,” he said. “Kidder was working at a place called Ossett Mills, not far from here. Yesterday there was a small electrical fire and the mill was evacuated and closed until all the electrics can be checked. The place will empty.”

“How bad was the fire?” Edragor asked.

“Not too bad,” Dan said. “But they’ve cleared the entire building. We would be undisturbed. And it’s not even in the main buildings,” he added. “There are some cellars that haven’t been disturbed in years. They’re empty, they’re not part of the alarm system, and because the building was in use, the cellars are in pretty good shape.” He risked a glance at Edragor’s face before looking quickly back to his computer. “And Kidder may appreciate it.”

Edragor reached out and caught Dan’s chin in his thin fingers. “Look at me, Dan,” he said. “You should be comfortable when you look me in the eye.”

Dan stared helplessly into Edragor’s hypnotic gaze. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said.

Edragor smiled a thin smile. “You are still too tender hearted,” he said. “You can’t bear the thought of pain to our… subjects.” He wagged an indulgent finger at Dan. “We’ll practice on Claire straight after we link Kidder to the Orache Stone. We can collect data then.” He frowned. “And perhaps we can do some small tests on cats or dogs, to see how they react after being killed by drugs and then revived.” He patted Dan’s cheek. “That makes a lot of sense. Start making the preparations for the ritual. I’ll go and inform Kidder of the good news.”

Dan watched him go. He’d found out about the fire and the cellars from a delivery guy who was hanging around Dan’s favourite coffee shop. According to the delivery guy, though, the mill was far from empty. There were electricians around all day and patrols at night. All the alarms and cameras were functional. Dan may not be able to stop Edragor, but he may be able to catch the attention of those who could.

Chapter Twenty Seven

The Orache Stone whispered softly to Kidder. “You would dominate all around you,” it said. “They would kneel at your feet, obey your every whim.”

“I don’t want that,” Kidder said, reacting before he could stop himself. The thought of his friends kneeling in front of him made him feel queasy. A sisterly hug from Carli or a fatherly clasp of his shoulder from Bron would mean far more.

“You wouldn’t?” The seductive tones of the Orache Stone were suddenly more surprised than seductive.

“You got it right the first time,” Kidder said. “I should be helping. But I don’t want to tell people what to do. What if I get it wrong?”

“How could you get it wrong with me leading you?” The Orache Stone whispered.

Kidder regretted letting his guard down. “Well, what do you know about looking after people?” he asked.

“I give them power,” the Orache Stone said. “I can give glory.”

“But that’s not really looking after people,” Kidder said. “It means cheering people up and making them happy as well as protecting them.”

“But isn’t being powerful the same as being happy?” the Orache Stone whispered. “Think about when you were last truly happy.”

Kidder fought to keep his face blank and his posture still, but a brief wave of longing ran through him at a memory. Gareth and Bron had been arguing about how to play cards after Darren had beaten them in a game of Old Maid. Mortimer had brought in a tray with all the good things on it and Carli had started pouring the tea. Sir Philip and Jasmine laughed at the argument as a fire flickered in the hearth. There had been a sense of deep friendship around the warm room and even Mortimer had been relaxed as they had tucked into miniature bacon and egg pies with crumpets and warm apple cake and custard to follow.

“That does not look familiar,” the Orache Stone said.

Kidder felt the echo of the stone’s emotion. He’d known it too much as a young stray. It was lonely and hurting and rejected and yearning for that feeling of belonging. “Are you a person?” he asked.

“I’m a stone,” it replied condescendingly.

“Not really,” Kidder said. “I mean, I suppose your in a stone or part of a stone or from a stone, but you’re not just a stone, are you? You have feelings.”

“No!” the Orache Stone snapped.

“I think I’ll call you Yvonne,” Kidder said. “So, Yvonne, what do you want?”

“No!” Yvonne said. “You can’t ask questions like that.”

“Why not?” Kidder asked. “I’m being reasonable. You’re trying to take me over. If you do that, then I’ll go mad and die. Why? And what do you get out of it?”

“Shut up!” Yvonne snapped back. “Stop it!”

“You’re like a stalker, aren’t you? Kidder said. “You need to control your owner. You need to be needed. You give all that power just to try and take a person over.”

“No!” Yvonne said. There was a long, strained silence broken only by the pattering of rain on the tiny cellar window. “What is the choice?”

“What do you want?” Kidder asked. The conversation was a mistake, but it was also fascinating.

“You should want me,” Yvonne said slowly.

“But you saw my happiest memory,” Kidder said. “Do you want that? That friendship?”

“It is a sort of desire,” Yvonne said. “The desire to be kind with each other.” There was confusion in its voice. “But where is the power? How can I belong without power?”

“So you trade power in return for being needed,” Kidder said. “But you kill those who have you. Mark’s dead, isn’t he?”

“He didn’t really want me,” Yvonne said bitterly. “He wanted little power, just for his wife.”

“I don’t want you,” Kidder said. “I don’t want to go mad and die.”

“And you don’t want power,” Yvonne said, her tone overflowing with confusion.

“Not like that,” Kidder said. “I want family.”

“I can’t have a family,” Yvonne whispered. “But I can have obsession.” Kidder flinched as the full force of the stone’s power hit him. “You should be obsessed with me.”

“No,” Kidder gasped. “I won’t. I want friends.”

The silence was louder now, the tapping of the raindrops on the small pane of glass echoed around the cellar like a soldier’s drum. “There is no such thing as friends,” Yvonne said, its voice thick with emotion. “There are allies and enemies.”

Kidder went to fur to get a clearer sense of the sounds. “Are you crying?” he asked incredulously.

“That room,” Yvonne said. “Those people. That kindness. I want it. How do I make that happen for me?”

“You can’t force it,” Kidder said. “You can’t force people to like you or love you. And it’s not always like that.” He frowned. “You can read my mind?”

“At least the surface of it,” Yvonne said. “I can manage to see images.” There was a slight pause. “I can look deeper if I have to but…”

“It wouldn’t feel good, would it?” Kidder said. “If you forced deeper then we couldn’t talk like this.” Again he flinched at the pang of emotion surging from the stone. “Does anyone talk to you?” He waited for Yvonne’s answer, but after a long, uncomfortable silence, shrugged. “I’ll show you the harder bits.”

Kidder could sense the unease as he tried to remember the awkward parts of living with a paladin and a brownie. He remembered Mortimer having a screaming fit because the chimney in the living room had become blocked and then dislodged with soot all over the newly cleaned carpet. He remembered the fear as Sir Philip had been carried in after a bad fight and how he and Jasmine had spent most of the night checking on him. He remembered the worry as Darren had been swaying with exhaustion as he drove out another dark spirit. He remembered the argument with Rhys, the nerves of trying to fit in with the people at the mill and the terror of being rejected and thrown out like he had been before.

“You could force them to like you,” Yvonne said softly.

“No,” Kidder said. “I could perhaps make them respect me. I could certainly make them fear me. I couldn’t get friends by power.”

“Why did you call me Yvonne?” it asked.

Kidder grinned. “I’ve always liked the name,” he said. “But I don’t know anyone called that.”

“It’s the name of a female,” Yvonne said. “Do you desire a female?”

Kidder blushed to the roots of his hair. “Well, yes, but you can’t force it,” he said. “I mean, if it’s going to be worth it. You need to be something more. Do you know how Mark felt about Claire?”

Yvonne sighed. “I could see quite a lot of his love for Claire,” it said. “It was desperation. He felt that she made him safe and kept him on the right path. He feared that without her, he would be nothing. He was not wrong.”

“I don’t want that,” Kidder said. “But sometimes when I see Carli and Gareth together, and they seem so relaxed and working it all out. Or I see Darren and Jasmine and she just glows with happiness when Darren walks in. I’d like that.” He looked directly at the stone on its plinth. “You can’t force that.”

“I’m sure that there are ways,” Yvonne said. “So you like the name Yvonne?”

“Yes, I’ve always liked the name,” Kidder said. “And you can’t force me to like you.” He flinched back as pain spiked from the stone. “But you could be a friend.”

“Is this manipulation?” Yvonne asked.

“Probably,” Kidder said. “I don’t know. Do you like Edragor? He’s the one who really wants your power. Perhaps you should link to him.”

“He’s too scared of me,” Yvonne said scornfully. “He would use others like a tool.” It paused for a moment. “My owners have done bad things,” it whispered.

“Yes,” Kidder said. “You were with Fang when he left me for dead.” There was another long silence.

“I’m sorry,” Yvonne said.

“It’s okay,” Kidder said. “It wasn’t really you. To be fair, it wasn’t really Fang either. It was the whole mess of how you were together.”

“I remember,” Yvonne said, its voice barely above a breath. “It must have hurt.”

“Yeah,” Kidder said with a grimace. “But that’s when I ended up with the paladin and my friends.”

“But you were friends with Fang,” Yvonne said slowly. “And he knew that you should be protected. Fang knew that you wanted to do the right thing.” It paused. “And the fear of being attacked, the fear of being weak drove him to attack you.”

“I don’t want that,” Kidder said.

“Edragor wants bad things,” Yvonne said, its voice still a soft whisper. “He wants power and is indifferent to others. He doesn’t crave friendship.”

“He seems half mad already,” Kidder said.

“It’s a different type of madness,” Yvonne said. “They have all been mad, in their ways,” she added softly. “Right from the start. There was a madness craving power. That’s what I remember at the start. The hunger for power was a desperation.” Its voice rang with sorrow. “Fang was mad. His mind was wandering through drink and other things. He was desperate and feared being challenged.”

“I remember,” Kidder said.

“Mark was already deep in his madness,” Yvonne continued. “His madness was his obsession with Claire and his fear of failing and being a monster. He was far gone before I even touched him.”

“He had good friends and a loyal pack,” Kidder said. “He should have trusted them.”

“He feared them,” Yvonne said sadly. Her tone changed. “But your fear is different.”

Kidder shook his head. The conversation was spiralling in directions he couldn’t expect. “Are you manipulating me?” he asked.

“I don’t know how,” Yvonne said. “Please…”

Kidder could feel the ache of loneliness in its voice. “If you promise something, will you stick to it?” he asked.

“I was made by the elfen,” Yvonne said. “I have to keep my word.”

“Are you as tricky as the elfen?” Kidder asked. “If you give your word, will you keep to the spirit of it, the intention of the words? Or will you twist it?”

Yvonne hesitated. “If you promise me something, will you keep your word?” it asked. “You’re a werewolf. You could lie.”

“Trust is hard,” Kidder said. “You can’t force it. But why don’t we try. Let’s make a deal.”

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty Eight

Image from WikiCommons and in the Public Domain

Kidder could feel the Orache Stone echoing in his mind. “Don’t distract me, Yvonne,” he hissed mentally. “We need to stay alert.” He walked steadily behind Edragor as they crossed the car park and through the small side door.

“I need to be physically touching you,” Yvonne said. “I need to have a physical connection to make the bond. Then you can take over the pack.”

“I’m not taking over the pack,” Kidder said.

“You could if you wanted,” Yvonne muttered.

Kidder inwardly rolled his eyes as he paced along the corridor but outwardly he kept his composure, keeping all thoughts on the inside. “We need to make the link so that I get all the power, then we get out of here,” he said. “And we need to take down Edragor on the way.”

“You definitely need me for that,” Yvonne said smugly. “And I’ll be glad to help,” it added with an edge of malice.

Kidder didn’t answer immediately. Edragor was a problem that he didn’t know how to solve. His acolyte or assistant or sidekick, Dan, would be easier. They guy looked on the edge of a breakdown. Kidder had been silent when Dan had edged into the cellar and left extra food and drink for him, nervously pushed up against the bars before he scuttled away but had noted the fear in Dan’s eyes. He was probably as much a prisoner as Kidder. Edragor was another matter. “What are those things walking next to Edragor?” he asked Yvonne.

“I’m not sure,” Yvonne said hesitantly. “Remember, I’ve spent most of my time in a hole in the ground.” There was a pause. “But I know that they are death.”

Kidder felt a chill spilling through his chest. “They said that there were wraiths at Claire’s memorial,” he said. He stumbled a little over the stone floor.

Edragor looked over his shoulder. “I trust that you’re not reconsidering,” he said.

“No,” Kidder said. “I’m just out of practice with walking. I’ve been stuck in a cage.”

Edragor stopped and turned to him. “You understand the deal, don’t you?” he said. “You get the power to rule. In exchange, you help me with a few issues.” He leaned closer to Kidder. “But the Orache Stone will only work with you if I channel it correctly. Mark went mad trying. So did Fang – you remember how that worked out for you? You need my protection.”

“He’s lying,” Yvonne said into Kidder’s mind. “I mean, I feel bad about the madness but that’s nothing to do with him.” It paused. “They never talked to me.”

Kidder fought down the fear as he faced Edragor. “I understand. You connect me to the Orache Stone and then I get to show a few people how to lead a pack.”

“That’s right,” Edragor said. “And in return you help me out with a little power from that Orache Stone. It can cloud your mind and confuse you. I’ll ensure that you can channel things correctly. We can have little… talks and I’ll explain it all to you.” He tilted his head and looked at Kidder thoughtfully. “Though I’m sure that you’ll pick things up quickly enough. You seem like a bright young man.”

Kidder watched Dan flinch. “I look forward to them,” he lied. “I’m sure that I’ll learn a lot.”

Edragor studied Kidder for a moment before turning and continuing a stately place along the corridor. “Down these steps,” Edragor said. “We’re nearly there.”

“Those things are dark! Those things are dark!” Yvonne was almost vibrating with nerves as images of the shadows surrounding Edragor swirled into Kidder’s mind. “I don’t know what to do!”

“Calm down,” Kidder soothed. “They can’t hurt you, can they?”

“I don’t want to be dark!” Yvonne said, panic rolling from her in waves. “I want the crumpets!” A vivid image of buttered crumpets, hot tea, a soft chair and friends around the fireplace that Yvonne had taken from Kidder’s memories flew at Kidder.

“If you can’t be calm then there’s a risk that you can’t help me,” Kidder said as he reached the top of the steps. He floundered for a moment. You couldn’t tell a magical stone to count breaths as a calming technique. “Remember the quiet time afterwards. Concentrate on that.”

“I won’t help Edragor,” Yvonne said, its voice catching. “I’ll burn him first.”

Kidder’s heart almost broke at the fear lacing through the Orache Stone. “We deal with Edragor first, then the wraiths,” he said. “Because if Edragor goes then there’s a chance that the wraiths go as well, and at least he can’t summon more if he’s dead.” Kidder hesitated.

Yvonne read the hesitation perfectly. “I don’t want to kill anyone anymore either,” it said. “But we have to. We have to kill them or there will be more that become like Fang or Mark. You shouldn’t be driven to that.” It hesitated. “I don’t want you to be like that. And then someone else will be used up after.”

Kidder did all he could to send mental reassurance through to the Orache Stone. Yvonne was obviously feeling fragile. “Do you have any ideas about how to deal with Edragor?” he asked.

“I can’t face his magic head on,” Yvonne said. “But I can disrupt it.” There was a brief hesitation as Kidder reached the bottom of the stairs. “I may not be strong enough to disrupt Edragor’s magic unless we try something different.”

“You’re nervous,” Kidder said.

“You could destroy me,” Yvonne said.

Kidder’s instinctive reaction was complete revulsion at the idea. He struggled to work out the right words. “We’ve been friends together in a dark place,” he said. “I won’t do that.”

“You see the wraiths, if that’s the word, they’re dark energy. They’re bad and scary and evil and…”

“Yvonne!” Kidder cried. He tried a gentler mental connection. “We’re in this together. Tell me what you need.” He followed Edragor along the dark corridor.

“Once we’re linked, I can suck the power from the wraiths. You’ll have to give me some direction, but between us we should manage. Then you can use that power against Edragor to disrupt his energy.” Tension rang through Yvonne’s voice. “But when I’m taking in that power, I’m fragile. You’ll need to protect me or I’ll break.” The fear in its voice was heartbreaking. “You could destroy me.”

“No,” Kidder said. “But we’ll have to be quick. We make the link – and I have no idea how that will happen – then straight away we need to drag the power from the wraiths as quickly as possible. Edragor will be trying to stop us.” Kidder glanced over his shoulder at the man shuffling behind them. “I’m not sure about Dan.”

“He’s weaker than Edragor,” Yvonne said. “Oh! We’re here.”

Kidder had been too caught up in their mental discussion to pay attention to his surroundings. Now, looking around, his heart sank. A pale body was stretched out on a table on one side of the room. The Orache Stone – Yvonne – was on a plinth on the other side. Elaborate magical circles had been chalked around each and candles and incense were placed at strategic points.

“Is that Claire?” Kidder asked.

“Mark was so insistent,” Edragor said. “After some thought, it seemed only right that I upheld my side of the bargain and brought Claire back.”

Kidder felt sick. He waited at the entrance to the room. “Can I just cross the circles?” he asked doubtfully.

“One moment,” Edragor said, checking the room and murmuring a few Latin words. A brief mist fell from the ceiling and washed through the room, leaving the wraiths scattering and pressed against the walls. Edragor nodded in satisfaction. “Good, the room is ready.” He carefully stepped through a gap in the chalked circle. “Step through here, and here only,” he said. “Stand there, next to the Orache Stone.”

Kidder followed his directions and stood, expressionless, next to the plinth. He could feel the nerves in Yvonne and he fought to keep his breathing even. He couldn’t let Edragor guess that anything was wrong, but a little tension would be normal. He was about to make a connection with a powerful magical artifact that could potentially destroy him. It was entirely reasonable that his shoulders were so racked with tension.

Kidder willed himself to stay calm. He remembered what had happened to Mark and Fang, but they hadn’t been sane to start with and at least Yvonne was talking to him. The Orache Stone had sounded brittle with nerves. Once the connection was made, though, he could direct Yvonne to pull the energy from the wraiths while he shifted and lunged at Edragor. It was risky – the dark mage was dangerous, but he didn’t have many choices. As for Dan, Kidder didn’t think that he would be a problem. From the look in his eye, he was halfway to bolting anyway.

Kidder stood obediently in the triangle Dan chalked around him and watched as the wraiths pressed back against the cellar walls. Whatever Edragor was chanting was making them unsettled. Kidder glanced over at the Orache Stone. Edragor had recast the stone and a strange glamour hung over Yvonne, giving it a mysterious, ancient look. As the chant grew higher, Kidder could feel something tugging, but he pushed it away. Edragor needed him to agree to the sorcerer’s control, he realised. While Kidder stood passively in that chalked triangle, the link was being made but his mind was still completely under control.

Edragor picked the Orache Stone up reverently, then passed it over to Kidder. A leather thong was passed repeatedly through incense smoke, this time with Dan chanting carefully, before the thong was passed to Kidder to thread through Yvonne’s new mounting. Kidder impassively slid the cord through the hoop and then hung it around his neck. Edragor lifted his hands, snapped out Latin phrases and the connection between Kidder and Yvonne clicked.

Kidder didn’t have time to shift. Instead he sprinted into Edragor, shoulder charging him to the ground.

“Watch the circle!” Dan cried.

They are so dark!” Yvonne cried as the wraiths started to twist.

Edragor snarled as he pointed a finger at Kidder. “You will burn!

Kidder kicked him hard in the ribs, rolling him over on the hard stone floor. “Bastard!”

Watch the circle!” Dan repeated, looking around anxiously. “It keeps out the wraiths!”

Edragor grimaced as he reached for Yvonne’s plinth. “There’s more than one way to break a circle.” He winced in pain as he pushed the stand over. It rocked slowly then fell across the chalked lines of the circle. “Get him!”

Dan screamed as the wraiths started advancing. He snatched up an athame from the altar and held it, trembling, in front of him.

“Too much power! Too much power!” Yvonne was practically singing as it called out, frantic.

Kidder glanced at the advancing wraiths. They were reduced, but still dark and their touch would be death. “Dump it on Edragor then pull more out of the wraiths,” he yelled, aiming another swinging kick at Edragor’s ribs.

“Hold on!” Yvonne screamed.

Dan fell to his knees and howled, holding his head as Kidder felt a wave of power breaking over the room and washing through him.

“You can’t kill me!” Edragor cried, struggling back to his feet.

The wraiths were edging closer. “Drain the power, Yvonne!” Kidder yelled.

Incredulity flashed across Edragor’s face but he held out a shaking hand and pointed at Kidder. “You will obey me!”

“His power is unstable!” Yvonne called out. “It’s going wrong.”

“Pull up the power,” Kidder snapped, struggling out of his clothes.

The wraiths flickered and writhed but they were inching closer. “Edragor’s holding power,” Dan yelled. “He stores it somehow and I can feel it splitting.”

“There’s too much death!” Yvonne sounded almost hysterical.

“Hold on!” Kidder yelled, starting to shift.

“That dark man, his power is building!” Yvonne yelled. “I’m taking power.”

As his jaw elongated to a wolfish snout, Kidder mentally cried to Yvonne. “Protect yourself.” As he flowed into his wolf form he raced towards Edragor, snarling.

The door crashed open. Edragor flinched and Kidder’s jaws missed his throat, closing instead around his shoulder. It didn’t matter. He sank his fangs in deep and shook the dark magician like a rag doll.

“Kidder!” Yvonne cried. “It’s out of balance!”

Kidder could feel it. The magic seemed to be bouncing around the room as, to Kidder’s relief, Steve, Sir Dylan and Sir Philip stormed in. Their swords that swept through the wraiths, leaving shimmering trails of magic in their wake.

Gareth followed with Tyler close beside him and Darren behind, covering the rear with sword and gun. “Kidder, you’re safe!”

“I can’t hold it!” Yvonne cried.

Steve swore wildly. “Everyone down,” he snapped. “It’s going wild.” He flung himself down next to the cowering Dan.

Most of the wraiths had been cut down and the few remnants were flickering as they backed away from the intruders. “Edragor!” Yvonne screams and a shock wave of magic runs through the room.

Kidder howled as the shock forced him back to human form, dazed and clutching at Yvonne. He could feel the hysteria running through her as even his untrained senses overloaded with fractured magic. Running at instinct, he channelled it all at Edragor.

Edragor stared at Kidder wildly. “That stone is mine!” he said. “Give it to me.”

“Don’t let him touch me!” Yvonne cried.

Kidder scrabbled back away from him and swore.

“Watch the wraiths!” Dan yelled.

Kidder couldn’t turn to watch the wraiths. Instead he was transfixed, staring at Edragor. As the man reached out towards the Orache Stone, the edges of his fingers were turning black and cracking. Under Kidder’s horrified gaze, the stain spread across Edragor’s hand and up his sleeve. Cracks followed and then the hand started to flake, tiny fragments of dust and ash at first but then larger chunks. Edragor was crumbling to dust.

“Everybody stay down!” Steve yelled.

“Too much power!” Yvonne cried, almost vibrating against Kidder’s chest.

Edragor exploded.

Kidder forced himself to his feet and looked around. Fine, dark dust covered everything. Steve was carefully dousing candles while Darren poured water over the incense. Yvonne was almost trembling in its setting. The wraiths had disappeared and only the dusty remnants of chalked sigils and the remains of Claire on the nearby table together with the puddle of dusty clothes on the floor were evidence that Edragor had ever existed. Dan was still huddled on the floor, rocking and sobbing in shock.

“It’s good to see you,” Gareth said. “We were looking everywhere for you. Are you okay?”

“I’m unhurt,” Kidder said, stroking Yvonne in an attempt to soothe it. “How did you find us? Edragor said that you were blocked.”

Gareth grinned. “I’m not an expert,” he said. “But Steve is.”

“Dan was the one who found this place,” Kidder said. “I wondered at the time. I mean, why pick the mill where all your enemies are based?” He crouched down next to Dan. “Did you pick this place on purpose? Did you want us to be found?”

Dan caught his breath and nodded. “I’m sorry.”

Gareth put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said. “We’ll have a long talk later, but thank you for making it easier for us.” He stood and turned to Kidder. “Now we need to destroy the Orache Stone.”

Kidder could feel the fear and heartbreak pouring out of Yvonne. “No,” he said.

Gareth took a wary step closer. “You know what it did to Mike and Fang,” he said. “But it’s weakened now.” He stretched out a hand. “Give it to me.”

Kidder stared into his steady gaze and took a step back, flicking his eyes around the room at the men advancing. “I will never give it up.” Summoning the extra energy from Yvonne and some instinct he didn’t know he had, a sheet of flame shot between him and Gareth. When it fell, Kidder was gone.

Gareth looked around the wrecked cellar. “That could have gone better,” he said.

Chapter Twenty Nine

“It’s been a week,” Sir Philip said. “That’s seven full days since we got rid of Edragor.”

Gareth nodded, almost too exhausted to speak. “There’s no sign of either Kidder or the Orache Stone,” he said. “Which could be good news.”

“Tyler is about to have a nervous breakdown waiting for the challenge,” Sir Philip said. He looked up as Mortimer called out that dinner was ready. “We’re going to have to abandon the search, or at least scale it down. We can’t carry on like this.”

Gareth followed slowly into the kitchen. “Darren is on the point of collapse,” he said. He sat slowly at the table. “This looks good, Mortimer. Thank you.” He worked his shoulders. “And I’m back in the office from Monday. Everything’s back in place now.”

Sir Philip raised a sceptical eye. “Everything?”

“Okay, it’s still like a battlefield, the weavers are learning the new looms, which still glitch now and again, and the canteen is just microwaves and kettles, but the office is set up and Carli has a dozen new designs she’s working on.” Gareth took a spoonful of the soup and sighed. “This is amazing.”

“We’re trying to convince Darren to stand down for a whole week,” Sir Philip said, digging into his own bowl of soup. “They’re sending someone from Canterbury to cover.” He took a mouthful of soup and looked hard at Gareth. “You’re the one who makes the call on this.”

Gareth sighed. “I’m worried that I’m selfish,” he said. “I’m weary to the bone. I want to spend some time with Carli.” He stirred his soup slowly. “And Luke is setting me up for a role as assistant manager. Work is going to be crazy.”

“Luke thinks that Gareth is going to marry Carli and he can leave the mill to the two of them,” Bron said. “He thinks that they make a cute couple and they’ll look after the mill.”

“He’s not wrong,” Sir Philip said, grinning.

“I think that they make a charming couple,” Mortimer said as he brought over two mugs of tea.

“Are you joining us?” Sir Philip asked.

Mortimer shook his head. “I ate earlier,” he said. “And I’m not as active as you.”

“I think we have to call it,” Bron said. “We have to call off the search for now. We’ll keep an ear out, but we can’t keep chasing our tails like this.” He shrugged. “Brutally, if the Orache Stone has got its talons into Kidder, he’s lost to us already. And the longer he is bonded with the stone, the weaker he’ll get. If we keep our eyes and ears open for the sort of trouble that the transfer of power would cause.”

Sir Philip nodded sadly. “It’s war, Gareth, and we lose people,” he said, his brown eyes sympathetic. “I guess that you’re new to this.”

“You’ve come a long way, lad,” Bron said. “This is just another painful step.”

Gareth looked, unseeing, past the kitchen walls as Mortimer replaced the empty soup bowl with a heaped plate of sausage and mash. “I didn’t realise that I’d face this,” he said quietly. “I was just trying for a better job.” He managed a faint smile of thanks to Mortimer as he poured a generous lake of gravy over his dinner. “But I got the job and I got this.” He took a breath. “And I don’t regret a damned thing. It’s not easy…” He picked up his fork. “We call off the search. I’ll call Tyler after dinner.”

“He’ll have a fit,” Bron said. “But he can just deal with it. And it’s not like we don’t have enough to do.”

“That’s absolutely right,” Sir Philip said. “And it’s why Darren has been run so ragged. The echoes of death and magic are still bouncing around and causing trouble. We won’t exactly get bored.”

“We’ll call it,” Gareth said. “And watch our backs.”

******

Kidder licked his lips nervously as he walked slowly towards the solicitors.

“I could have got more money for you,” Yvonne said. “We could have taken over the pack.”

Kidder projected an image of Fang after he got the Orache Stone and piles of awkward paperwork. Yvonne understood images better. “A small lottery win as seed money works best,” he said. “We don’t want to have our pictures shared for publicity. We need to lay low for a bit.”

Yvonne responded with an image of Kidder, relaxed and happy, hanging around with Gareth, Sir Philip and Mortimer. “Just a little more comfortable,” it said.

“We’ll do this right,” Kidder said. He sighed mentally and smiled at Yvonne. “Sometimes I wish that I could give you a hug and let you know that it’s okay,” he said. “Take a moment.” He looked around at the crisp, autumn day with the bright, thin sunshine streaking across the pavement. “This is a good day.”

Yvonne responded with an image of the solicitor. Kidder always thought of lawyers as male and old. Caitlyn wasn’t much older than him and she was beautiful. She was also professional, icily competent and, according to the ring on her left hand, married. “You need to make a friend family,” it said.

“One step at a time,” Kidder said. He was on his way to sign the papers for his first property. Okay, he was living in a room as a lodger, but once he’d signed the papers he would be a landlord, owning a shabby, low cost flat on the edge of Shipley with a sitting tenant. With his under the table job working on a building site, he could start building up a bank balance and a life. “I’m not going to pursue friends,” he told Yvonne. “I’m going to see who I meet and look for good people. I want to find friends worth having.”

“Like Gareth and Bron?” Yvonne said.

“Yeah, like them,” Kidder said.

“You don’t think that you’ll find anyone as good as them,” Yvonne observed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kidder said. “All I can do now is find my feet and work things out.” He paused. “And at least I have you.”

“You will always have me,” Yvonne said.

To be continued…

Watch out for Kidder’s return in Spellburned. Meanwhile, look out for the Prince and the Paladin, set in Leeds and following on from these events.